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Essential workers exposed to COVID-19 are reporting to work when they can’t get paid to quarantine

Custodians, airport workers, and SEPTA workers have to decide: Can I afford to miss two weeks of pay? Or should I risk infecting coworkers and customers?

Tamika Anderson is a custodian at 1515 Arch St. who was forced to quarantine without pay when a coworker tested positive.
Tamika Anderson is a custodian at 1515 Arch St. who was forced to quarantine without pay when a coworker tested positive.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

At Philadelphia International Airport, where he works as a supervisor helping passengers in wheelchairs on and off planes, Benjamin McMillan says some of his coworkers have come to work even if they’ve been exposed to or infected with COVID-19 because they can’t afford to quarantine.

It frustrates McMillan, a 44-year-old father who fears infecting his own father, who is immunocompromised. But he gets it: These workers, who make about $13 an hour, have already lost hours — and tips — during the pandemic. And while they can use their paid time off to quarantine, many haven’t accrued enough time because their hours have been cut.

Many essential workers aren’t getting extra paid leave to quarantine, even though their work puts them at higher risk of exposure. Often, they have to use their own paid time off. And for those who had some form of paid COVID leave, some have exhausted it as they’ve had to quarantine multiple times.

McMillan’s employer, Prospect Air Services, did not respond to a request for comment.

» READ MORE: Nurses are using their own time off from work to be in isolation after coronavirus contact

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends quarantining for 10 days — which it shortened in December from the original 14 days — after being in close contact with someone who has tested positive, if you don’t have any symptoms.

Essential workers have struggled to get information about positive cases and potential exposure on the job. But when they do find out, many have to decide: Can I afford to miss two weeks of pay? Or should I risk getting coworkers and customers sick?

In the early days of the pandemic, about one-third of employers were offering additional leave — paid or unpaid — to employees during the pandemic, according to an April 2020 report by Society for Human Resource Management. Some were required to offer paid leave by federal or city law. But these laws, such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and Philadelphia’s emergency paid sick leave law, covered only one two-week quarantine, not taking into account that essential workers might get exposed multiple times.

Rue Dooley, a human resources expert at the Society for Human Resource Management, said that although many employers changed their leave policies in response to the pandemic, often allowing for more job-protected leave, there’s a limit to how much of it will be paid.

“I’m not going to say that no employer can afford it, but no employer wants to afford it,” Dooley said. “That’s too costly.”

» READ MORE: SEPTA union is considering legal action over COVID-19 quarantine policy

Employers need to be able to budget for these expenses, he said.

Union leaders and workplace health and safety experts say that not paying workers to quarantine creates a disincentive to speak up about infection or exposure.

“If they’re not going to get paid, they’re not going to come forward,” said Peg Seminario, who served as the director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO for three decades before retiring in 2019. “It’s critical to quarantine and pay those individuals so the community can be protected.”

Barbara Rittinger Rigo, an attorney at employer law firm Littler Mendelson P.C., said that if employees were exposed to COVID on the job, employers would be more likely to be generous about employees taking leave. But if they were exposed because they flew somewhere for Thanksgiving or because they were going to gatherings without a mask, that’s another story. Still, she noted that it’s difficult to prove how someone has been exposed.

At SEPTA, which has seen 981 cases of COVID, including 10 deaths, workers got four weeks of paid quarantine leave last year. By the end of the year, dozens had exhausted those four weeks of leave. If they needed more leave in 2020, they would have had to use sick pay — about half their normal pay.

» READ MORE: ‘Are we essential or disposable?’ Workers say they need to know more about positive cases on the job.

Many can’t afford to take that pay cut, said Willie Brown, president of Transport Workers Union Local 234, which represents 4,000 workers, including cashiers and drivers. That means workers are coming into work sick or after they’ve been exposed, endangering their coworkers and riders.

“This is not just a fight for us,” he said. “This is also a fight for the riding public.”

In 2021, SEPTA is offering just two weeks of paid quarantine leave. Spokesperson Andrew Busch said this reduction is because federal funding under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) is no longer available. The sick pay provision is part of the collective bargaining agreement, he said.

Busch added that SEPTA has sought to reduce the spread of COVID by offering onsite testing through the Black Doctors COVID Consortium, finalizing a vaccine plan, and conducting contact tracing.

Bruce Bodner, TWU Local 234′s lawyer, said that workers sometimes lie when they get contact tracing calls because they don’t want to be forced to quarantine.

» READ MORE: Online holiday shopping is crushing warehouse workers during the pandemic. But overtime is a powerful lure.

At UPS, workers get a one-time, 10-day paid COVID leave. But during the busy holiday season, there was no incentive to take that benefit since workers could make double their pay in overtime, said Richard Hooker, top official at Teamsters Local 623, which represents 4,500 UPS workers in Philadelphia.

“Some of them, even if they are sick or even if they do have COVID, they’re willing to take that chance, just so they can get more money so they can help provide for their families,” he said.

UPS spokesperson Matthew O’Connor said, “If an employee has symptoms, we do not want them to come to work.”

Some employers require workers to quarantine if they’ve been exposed to a positive case on the job, which workers say is unfair if they’re not getting paid to do so or being forced to use their vacation time.

At the 1515 Arch office building, custodian Tamika Anderson got sent home when a coworker tested positive. She was told to get tested and quarantine. If she wanted to get paid for it, she’d have to use her paid time off.

“I’m not willing to use my vacation and all that,” said Anderson, 49. “I wanna use it when I wanna use it, not because I’m forced to use it.”

Trox Austell, a spokesperson for Anderson’s employer, CMTI, said this policy is part of ”a mutual agreement between the company and the union.”

Anderson, a grandmother who recently bought a house in Delaware, quarantined for a week without pay before she got a negative test and was allowed to return to work.

She’s angry. “I need every dime,” she said.