This year, many, who work in public-facing jobs will be sickened with an infectious disease and will, despite warnings to do otherwise, will show up to work while they are still contagious.
This is not anything that is nor is or unique to the looming threat of the coronavirus. This happens every damn day, because these workers have no choice but to show up for work.
In the past few days, I’ve encountered many articles and social media posts, that call attention to the plight of low-wage workers. Many of them lack insurance, and don’t have paid sick time. Thus they are not afforded the luxury of ‘just’ staying home if they are injured, or even if they have a communicable illness.
Many of them are employed in food service, or other positions with frequent human contact. They regularly work under conditions where they pose risk to their own health and well-being; and at times, to that of that others in their community.
These articles have really hit home for me, on so many levels. I’ve been in their shoes and I know that many people in these situations won’t take off from work if they’re sick.
Because they can’t.
“Just” Take a Few Days Off
When I was in college I contracted a stomach virus, like many people in the community also did that fall.
I got so sick that I made a rare trip to the campus infirmary, where the physician’s assistant provided me with the expected guidelines: “…get plenty of rest, drink lots of liquids and stay away from solid foods until…” and assured me that I’d be better in about a week or 10 days.
He then suggested that I take a few days off from work.
“Like that’ll happen,” I thought to myself.
Because I Couldn’t
I was sick for months.
Because I never stopped working. Late-afternoons/evenings or overnights for 8 or 16+ of heavy lifting, I’d back in a steaming hot dish-room handling “clean” plates.
Missing work had not even an option I’d considered, because I couldn’t.
Nobody was going to pay my rent and utility bills, or the next semester’s tuition. And I was already being haunted by the specter of the student loan payments that would be due soon after graduation.
Avoiding solid foods didn’t work out so well, either.
Gatorade and chicken broth didn’t provide adequate sustenance for my work-activity level over 8 (sometimes 16+) hours. My shifts were bookended with a bicycle commute, that often involved a morning sprint, in which I raced home, to sneak in a shower before my morning classes.
I was getting a lot cramps: in my biceps, and upper back, and occasionally in my calves. Thus, I skipped ahead, from clear liquid to full liquid: gulping orange juice.
Soon I’d fast-forwarded to soft foods, wolfing down bananas by the bunch.
I don’t recall if the onslaught of potassium helped with the cramps, but my stomach was messier than ever.
But…I was soooo hungry. Fat, protein, carbohydrates…even vegetables were the things I craved. One morning, as I wandered through neighborhood convenience store, I heard the siren’s call of the “heat and eat” sandwiches section.
I stared longingly at the items, and tried to talk myself out of them, before tentatively grabbing a pack of sausage and cheese biscuits, knowing that once I hit the “start” button on the microwave that I officially owned it them.
I paid for the biscuits and wolfed down both of them while still standing in the parking lot because I couldn’t wait for the 100-yard-walk to my apartment building.
My stomach was quickly outraged.
I missed most of my classes that day, but went to work at 3 pm. My Statistics discussion section, or my Political Theory lecture, didn’t put bread (or sweaty sausage biscuits, for that matter) on the table. They were expendable.
When I Practiced To Deceive
During my weekend calls home, it was normal to chat with my mother for a few minutes before she handed the phone to my father who repeated a lot of the questions I’d answered for Mom. Though during the period of my endless gastrointestinal affliction, he asked, “Ya been sick anymore?”
He had decades of medical experience, and had recently had become a nurse. So, several times, I’d gotten lectured about getting back to the “damn doctor” (“doctah” as he pronounced it).
While I agreed, I didn’t think I could because it was too expensive.
My father was a veteran, and as a college student, I would be covered under their insurance for a couple more years. Though, I knew that it didn’t cover everything.
I remember several times seeing my father burning through the checkbook paying medical bills that seemed to arrive by the basket-load every time one the six kids, or my mom, had a hospital stay.
Thus, to avoid contentious moments with my father, I began lying about to him about my condition. I claimed that I was back to running, lifting weights, etc. Lying and staying sick seemed a better option than arguing about going to the hospital.
All The Others
While, it seemed perverse that, despite having insurance, I couldn’t afford medical care, I realized that many people had it much worse than I did.
I don’t remember how many of my coworkers caught the stomach bug. Though it didn’t matter, things were already tough for many of them.
In addition to the proverbial “struggling students,” I worked with many people who had families, and were the sole provider for: their own children, disabled spouses, elderly parents, younger siblings…there would be even less rest for them.
Unlike me, almost none of them had insurance. Our employer didn’t provide it, and it was prohibitively expensive to obtain from outside sources.
There were several tougher-than-nails waitresses who returned to work a scant few days after giving birth. And a bull-strong dishwasher in his late 40’s was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack. He came to work later that week.
Missing more work was not an option for them.
Why Don’t You ‘Just’ Stay Home?
My roommate, whose family was fairly well off, used to badger me about going to work (and to classes) when I was ill. He was a high school friend, and we were in our second year of living together, so he felt he could badger me, I guess.
Several times he asked me, “If you’re so sick, why don’t you ‘just’ stay home?”
“I dunno,” was my usual answer.
After a particularly bad stretch with the stomach infection, I got up, groaning and listless, and made my way to the shower.
Again, he asked “Why don’t you ‘just’ stay home?”
This time, I replied “Because I can’t.”
Then to drive my point home, and to be a little bit of a jerk, I asked him “Why won’t your dad ‘just’ pay my bills?”
He never asked again.
It was easy then, and now, for people who have never been in a similar context to dismiss lower-wage workers.
Furthermore, in a moment where we seemed perched on the edge of pandemic. It’s easy for people to dismiss these workers as being “too stupid to stay home when they’re sick.” (Unfortunately that is an actual quote, I’ve heard in the past).
The truth is that they don’t stay home for a simple reason: because they can’t.
My advice to those who can’t understand the circumstances of others who may be caught in the low-income trap: be kind, be helpful, or just try to be quiet.