Did the pandemic change employee decisions about calling in sick?

Research shows working sick and slacking off have both been part of the pandemic employment story, which is still evolving

The federal government and some employers have tried to cope with the pandemic’s fallout by expanding employee access to needed sick leave. But whether these efforts made a difference — especially for those working from home — is still a bit of a mystery.

Employees have juggled their work responsibilities and illness in very different ways during the past 20 months than they did before the pandemic arrived, experts say. For those working from home, the calculus behind taking sick time may have changed a lot.

Researchers will be reflecting on two important, but very different questions about sick leave and COVID-19 in the months and years ahead:

  • If you got sick while working from home, was there a tendency to keep working?
  • And what happened to those who didn’t know about or have access to paid sick leave benefits during the pandemic?

When illness hits home

Axios recently explored what’s probably a fairly common scenario for remote workers: continuing to work even while sick.

“Before the pandemic, if you woke up with a runny nose or a tickle in your throat, it was a simple enough decision to stay home and avoid infecting your co-workers. Now, as more Americans work from home, sick days are disappearing,” the article noted.

Sick days aren’t literally disappearing, of course, but workers may be finding it harder to justify taking time off to be ill, if only to themselves. Axios reported that such behavior “leads to an epidemic of ‘presenteeism’ — showing up for work when you’re not feeling up to it and not doing your best job.”

There’s a serious downside to presenteeism, according to the American Productivity Audit, which said it costs the United States $226 billion in lost productivity annually. Working while you’re sick can hamper recovery and return to full productivity. The audit says presenteeism adds to the nation’s existing job-burnout problem.

A national survey by OnePoll for Cold Calm found that two-thirds of employees working remotely during COVID-19 were reluctant to take sick days because they worried about what their bosses would think of them. And three-fourths said working from home raised the bar on how sick they felt they had to be in order to claim a sick day.

Overall, 7 in 10 of the remote workers surveyed said they’ve worked while feeling ill since they started working from home.

The poll highlighted another potential problem for employers: Some remote workers admitted they didn’t actually work when they didn’t feel well; they just hoped no one would notice they didn’t get things done. That was mostly people who didn’t have paid sick days and felt lousy. Of those who did work while sick, more than half said their performance  “decreased considerably.”

But 57% also said they felt the fact they worked remotely while ill “enhanced their credibility with co-workers,” according to a report on the survey that was published on Studyfinds.org.

The Society for Human Resource Management said that remote work is likely not going to shrink back to where it was because COVID-19 proved some jobs can be done remotely. So the group says it behooves employers to provide paid time off and insist ill workers take it. 

Fading paid-leave benefits

While health-related benefits seemed to grow in the pandemic, they didn’t cover everyone. And not everyone who was covered knew about the benefit.

Congress provided funding for emergency paid sick leave for COVID-19 in March 2020 in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and later extended it through September 2021. 

A Cornell University-led study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found most people didn’t know that extended health benefits might be available if they were sick with COVID-19. The study also said the number of people who got sick but could not afford to take time off or were not allowed to tripled during in the pandemic.

“When the government does not ensure that people have access to paid sick leave, people go to work sick,” study author Nicolas Ziebarth, associate professor of public policy at Cornell, said in a news release about the study. “And when you have a virus going on — it could be the flu or coronavirus, it doesn’t really matter — then the sick people at work infect co-workers who go on to infect other people.”

Sick leave policy is confusing. Will the pandemic spur change?

The Cornell study said the act was used by about 8 million workers in the first eight months. But part-time and foreign-born workers were especially unlikely to know about the pandemic-specific benefits. And the study called out hospitality and service workers —  often on the front line in low-paying jobs — as less likely to know.

Men were more apt to use the benefit than women, who are “overrepresented in the hospitality and service industries,” said Ziebarth, who is also the associate director of the Cornell Institute for Healthy Futures. He said that “women tend to have a higher burden of work. They are still more likely to be the primary caregiver for children and have to balance paid work, chores and child care.”

The American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress in March 2020 also created an emergency paid leave fund to make sure federal employees could take time off for health reasons related to the pandemic. Eligible federal employees had until Sept. 30 to request emergency paid leave —  and a lot of them did, according to the Federal News Network, which based its data on the Office of Personnel Management’s ARPA Emergency Paid Leave dashboard. The network reported agencies used nearly 60% of the fund, but claims were still coming in. 

As of the report, dated Oct. 25, federal employees had claimed just over 12.3 million hours, with some agencies using just one or two days total of the sick time. The U.S. Postal Service was the heaviest user, with nearly 10 million hours.

The Society for Human Resource Management article quoted Richard W. Warren, principal attorney at Miller Canfield and deputy leader of the firm’s employment and labor group, who said that with federal mandates expired, “nearly all employers have settled back into providing only paid time off provided under their vacation policies or other state law and have not decided to extend any additional voluntary paid leave to their employees.” But he noted “a slow but consistent progression of more states requiring paid sick leave, and we expect that trend to continue.”

And the story of sick leave and the pandemic continue to unfold. As the Dallas Morning News reported a week ago, the Biden administration’s much-disputed requirement that large employers require workers to be vaccinated or tested regularly for COVID-19 carries a provision that workers be allowed paid time to get the vaccine and to deal with the vaccine’s effects. 

But there’s still a lot of back-and-forth in the courts on whether that executive order will actually take effect. Meanwhile, many employers have already adopted the mandate independently. And how sick leave related to the virus or vaccination or testing is implemented will likely continue to evolve.