When a 35-year-old server from Pittsburgh tried to organize around COVID-19 safety at her job in early January, she was fired for sending “negative texts” to her coworkers. Nicole, who has asked to withhold her last name to protect her identity, had worked at the restaurant for four months and was increasingly frustrated by management’s lack of health considerations for staff. Management did not make masks compulsory, and employees were told they didn’t have to get tested or quarantined after exposure. To address this, Nicole suggested starting a petition and list of demands and floated the idea of going public with their experiences of feeling coerced and neglected. 

“One-third of our coworkers were [infected] with COVID, but management was not being forthcoming about who was affected,” Nicole said. Not only were workers not allowed to stay at home and protect themselves, but they were punished for even trying to understand the safety protocols. “The management got hold of screenshots of a private employee thread where we were sharing stories of things we experienced on the job and discussing a plan to approach them, so they fired us.”

This isn’t an isolated incident. The new CDC guidelines allow employers, including the restaurant that fired Nicole, to ask employees to come in when they’re not feeling well [because of COVID-19] or have been exposed to COVID-19. 

In December, the CDC shortened the isolation period for people infected with COVID-19 from 10 days to five. While the decision is beneficial for business owners and employers, it proved harmful to workers, many of whom were forced back into their jobs despite obvious health risks. 

The move to shorten isolation periods and relax the strict guidelines came from a place of wanting to reduce labor shortages across the U.S., but The New York State Nurses Association said in a statement that this is “only going to worsen the shortage and put our patients at risk.”

Dr. Tara C. Smith, an infectious disease epidemiologist, and professor at Kent State University, responded to CDC’s changed guidelines in a tweet saying, “Employers, already having workplaces that are understaffed, will pressure/force workers to come back in at day 5. I also worry they’ll ignore the ‘asymptomatic’ part and require even those who have been ill to come back in. Who’s protecting the employees?”

The impacts of forced labor

More than 19 million people in the U.S. have been infected with COVID-19 over the last month, with the country reaching a seven-day average of 806,851 in mid-January. A large portion of these included health care and service workers, who lacked the option to work remotely

“Low-wage service workers have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to their having a limited say in the conditions of their employment and the fact that their jobs require face-to-face interaction with the public,” said Alan Romero, an employment attorney from Pasadena, California. 

Workers in the education, health care, and service sectors were already working throughout the pandemic. The updated guidelines have made things worse for those trying to do whatever they can to keep from getting infected. 

“I was forced to return to campus because we needed the teachers in the classrooms,” said Mae, a K-12 educator near Illinois. “We were told if you are vaccinated and not showing symptoms, you must return unless you were immunocompromised. We were screened weekly and unless positive, we were in the classroom, exposing ourselves every day.” 

BIPOC service workers are disproportionally affected, as the community already faces systemic biases. COVID-19 unemployment data from the Economic Policy Institute suggests that Black and Latinx workers “face much more economic and health insecurity from COVID-19 than white workers.” The data shows that between February and April 2020, the unemployment rate for Black people was 16.7%, compared with an unemployment rate of 14.2% for white people. This stems both from the existing racial wage gap and biased treatment toward BIPOC employees. 

“I have a pending case against a hotel operator who was forcing BIPOC cleaning staff to enter the rooms of COVID positive guests to clean them immediately upon their departure, instead of waiting the required 24 hours as set forth by CDC guidelines,” Romero said. The sole motivation was profit: leaving the room unoccupied for 24 hours was interfering with the hotel owner’s profits, he added. “These cases are often exacerbated when the service workers are primarily BIPOC and when employers feel that as a result, the workers are less likely to lodge complaints or otherwise risk their jobs by insisting on health and safety protections.”

‘We don’t earn enough to take unpaid leave’

While most companies and employers aren’t outright telling employees to come to work while infected with COVID-19, limited sick leave and the shortened isolation policy have made it easier to force workers back to work before they’re better at the risk of risk being fired. 

A joint investigation by Popular Information and More Perfect Union recently found that Red Lobster staff members were forced to work when they were sick because there was no sufficient paid leave policy. The management insisted the employees either come to work sick or find adequate cover for their shift, which has been especially challenging during the pandemic. The report says employees were “threatened” to come and work despite health concerns or “get written up.” 

Some workers say it’s difficult to stay away from work if the time off is coming out of your own pocket. 

“We only get 10 days a year,” Mae said, adding that she avoided all social activities for the past two years because getting infected would mean a significant income loss. “I’m terrified as I’m my own provider. I don’t have a safety net. I have no family to rely on.”

Echoing Mae’s story, an LA-based marketing associate says she was forced to go back to work despite health problems because she had no money coming in. Her disability accommodations were denied and she was told “business is business and nothing is going to change.” 

“Just because you can’t see the injury doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” she said. “A lot of people are hurting and are very fearful of losing their source of income, but in return, their bodies will continue to suffer.”

The paid leave solution

Beyond the legal aspect, some workers say the general attitude toward work needs to change so that employers can normalize putting people before profit. 

“There’s been ‘lazy worker’ messaging going around this country since the pandemic,” Nicole said. “It’s a stigma that’s putting a lot of pressure on people to work when they don’t feel safe, or for employers to look down at workers when they voice their safety concerns.” 

A potential solution beyond allowing workers to stay home when sick is to offer sufficient paid leave so employees aren’t forced to risk their lives to make a living. In March 2020, the U.S. government introduced the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which offered free coronavirus testing and up to 80 hours of paid leave to workers affected by COVID-19. The policy expired on Dec. 31, 2021, leaving different states to come up with their own rules for paid recovery leave. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently reimplemented a state policy that would require employers to provide workers with up to two weeks of paid sick leave both for workers infected with COVID-19 and those who need to care for an affected family member. This move could find a middle ground between worker shortage and forcing people back into their jobs. New York has a flexible paid leave policy where the amount of mandatory paid leave offered depends on the size of the business and the number of employees the organization has. States like North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, and many others have no such paid leave policy to benefit workers affected by the virus. If more states implement policies like the one in California, it would give workers the option to isolate and take care of themselves and their families when sick, rather than go to work and risk infecting others. 

Sakshi Udavant is a freelance journalist and content writer with an academic background in psychology. She covers social issues, technology, mental health, and well-being for titles like Business Insider,...