Breathing hurts. The mound of tissues next to the groove you hollow into the couch grows faster than seems possible. Sound and light crash against your skull like hammers, so even binge-watching and reading become painful.
In the spring of 2016, my chronic sinusitis had flared up again. It does this at least once a year (hence the “chronic”). I’ve been going to hospitals for sinus infections all my life. The best doctors have told me all I can do is stay home, take care of myself, and keep myself isolated so I don’t get anyone sick.
But in the spring of 2016, I worked as a shift supervisor for Starbucks. After two years there, I had accumulated plenty of sick time. So I called my manager and somehow squeezed enough words out of the back of my throat to let him know I couldn’t come in.
“So who’s covering you?” he asked.
My heart sank.
Technically, it was against company policy to deny sick time this way, but Starbucks doesn’t have a history of enforcing this policy. And when you’re an hourly employee, you can’t afford to risk getting your hours cut by going over your manager’s head.
So I called all around the city, but I couldn’t find anyone to cover me. I called my manager back. I begged, I pleaded, I told him I would get other people sick.
It was all in vain.
So I showered, popped a few more Sudafed than recommended, and tossed a green apron into my backpack. I had no choice.
As the Covid-19 virus grows into a global threat, I can’t help but think about all the baristas, burger-flippers, train operators and janitors of the world — all the hard-working people across America who might go into work sick because they have to, like I had to.
The United States has no federal standards for paid sick leave. And Senate Republicans just blocked a measure to expedite emergency sick leave as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.
Meanwhile, regulations at the state and city level vary wildly from one jurisdiction to another. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 39 percent of workers in service occupations have no official sick leave. These figures rise as high as 69 percent in the lowest wage brackets.
Among those who do have leave, many employers require workers using sick time to find a replacement for their shift — as my manager asked of me in 2016. In some places this is legal. In other places, like New York City, it’s not.
But whatever the rules and whatever the official policy, big companies consistently violate these laws to harass their workers out of taking time off when they’re sick. In December, a New York City probe revealed that Starbucks had illegally required employees to find substitutes if they needed to use sick leave.
The consequences are dire. Foremost, workers are forced to work long hours at demanding jobs while profoundly ill. Second, they are forced to expose the people they serve to their pathogens.
When I went in to work at Starbucks on that day in 2016, the line was all the way to the door. My only baristas were inexperienced, so as my manager pressured me to take care of the line, I put myself on the bar, making drinks as fast and as well as I could.
Breathing still hurt. I periodically disappeared into the back to sneeze, blow my nose, wash my hands, and sprint back out to making drinks before the line exploded again. Do you think I had time to wait for the water to get hot and scrub for the length of two “Happy Birthday” songs every time I blew my nose?
It’s well past time we joined the civilized world by giving workers federally mandated, paid sick leave. At the very least, the Trump administration should urge employers to issue “hazard pay” for those who can’t work, as is done in some natural disasters.
Our health, our lives, and our coffee depend on it.