Charlottesville physicians say required pay sick leave could minimize spread of COVID-19

Charlottesville physicians say required pay sick leave could minimize spread of COVID-19
Dr. Michael Williams, director of UVA's Center for Health Policy, explains why he supports paid sick leave. (Source: WVIR)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - More than 1 million Virginians, many of them essential workers, are not given paid sick leave through their employer. Physicians in Charlottesville are calling on the Virginian Senate to pass paid sick leave legislation, saying it could actually decrease transmission of COVID-19 and save lives.

“Simply put, it hurts all of us when people feel they have to go to work sick, because they need the paycheck or fear getting fired,” said Dr. Greg Gelburd, a family physician in Charlottesville.

House Bill 2137, which passed in the House earlier this month, would require employers to grant paid sick leave to essential workers who clock in 20 hours a week on average.

Dr. Gelburd said over 70% of food service workers, home health workers and cleaning or maintenance employees do not have paid sick leave. Without paid sick leave, infected workers must return to work, aiding in the spread of the virus.

”Several of my patients have not been able to take time off to get tested, and they have no choice but to work, even if they get a positive test. So they go to work, clock in, stay silent about their own illness or possible known diagnosis and increase the risk, obviously, of spreading diseases,” Gelburd said.

Dr. Michael Williams, an ICU doctor and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Health Policy, said for many essential workers are not able to complete tasks, and thus be paid, from home.

“They definitely can’t do their job remotely. You can’t package at a meat packaging facility or you can’t stock a shelf from home,” Williams explained.

Many of Virginians essential workers are Black or Latinx, marginalized communities that are at a higher risk of COVID-19′s worst effects. Dr. Williams said for many people in these communities, calling out of work from sickness means not being able to put food on the table.

“This bill makes it tremendously forward in being able to make sure that communities of color that are at such high risk of the worst aspects of the worst pandemic, maybe in human history, but certainly in the last 100 years and counting, are protected by having the ability to do what we have told them to do, which is: If you think you have COVID, or you do have COVID, don’t come to work,” Williams said.

Paid sick leave, Williams noted, could have positive effects within the home and workplace long after the pandemic ends, by keeping employees healthy and workplaces safer.

“I think there’s good evidence around the rest of the world, that the return on investment of paid sick leave would be massive in terms of cost-avoidance down the road,” Williams said.

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