In the midst of what is now a pandemic, limited paid sick leave policies can put workers at higher risk and undermine public health. The University of Connecticut has received criticism from UConn employees and has generated concern on social media for not having a more comprehensive sick leave policy.
Many social media users correctly pointed out that restrictive paid leave policies can unintentionally encourage employees to go back to work while they are still contagious.
As of now, UConn campuses are closed for the remainder of the spring semester, and classes will begin online starting March 23. But with frequent international travel, trade and contact, it seems unlikely that this will be the last pandemic we experience. So what we should be doing now is thinking about how we should reshape our institutions so that they respond more effectively and more humanely to the next pandemic.
As a recent UConn graduate, I am confident that the university would grant employees paid sick leave if they got sick with the coronavirus. But, employees should not be dependent on the university’s altruism and flexibility.
Robert Samples, a doctoral candidate at UConn, tweeted at the UConn Human Resources Department and at UConn President Thomas Katsouleas, arguing that the three days of paid sick leave he is guaranteed is inadequate.
“This is how you get people to come back to work when they are still contagious,” read Samples’ tweet.
He was responding to an email sent out by UConn human resources that directed some employees to dip into their personal leave or vacation time if they contracted Covid-19 or displayed symptoms.
Samples’ tweet amassed over 41,000 retweets and 50,000 likes and countless comments. A lot of comments offered support and were shows of solidarity, but some were also acknowledgments of confusion.
Most of the uncertainty stemmed from the unclear language around who was eligible for paid leave. Employees who have been told to self-quarantine for 14 days are eligible for paid leave. This group includes those coming back from countries that have been designated high-risk transmission areas by the CDC. Returnees from Italy, South Korea and Iran would be required to self-quarantine and would be eligible for the 14 days of paid sick leave.
But this specific paid leave policy does not apply to those who have not visited one of the aforementioned countries and have been exposed to Covid-19. University employees in this category who present symptoms of, or even test positive for Covid-19 can either take a combination of personal leave and vacation time or request a leave of absence. The leave of absence is normally unpaid, but the university can choose to make it paid.
Jordan McMillan, the president of the UConn Graduate Employee Union chapter, said that after the initial statement by UConn, the GEU was contacted by members expressing confusion around telecommuting policies and working from home during the closure. McMillan also said that union leadership had been in contact with the university to facilitate how to best accommodate workers amidst new developments.
Due to the severity of the Covid-19 outbreak, it is unlikely that UConn would choose not to offer extended paid sick leave to any employee who tested positive for the novel coronavirus. But on paper, they have the ability to do so.
UConn heavily implied that they would be flexible in a tweet responding to Samples, “UConn does not want anyone who is sick coming to work,” it read.
They also mentioned a policy that would extend paid sick leave to those who need it. But the question remains, if UConn is willing to make exceptions when needed, then why not just officially make unrestricted sick leave available to anyone exposed to Covid-19?
The rapid spread of Covid-19 has made it clear that we need a robust public health system. But we also need strong social safety nets that incentivize the type of individual actions that promote public well-being.
In a public health crisis, clear communication and trust are invaluable. If employees are uncertain that they will be paid for the time they take off, or if their paid time will come out of accrued personal leave that makes us less safe.
We need to push representatives in government and leaders in public sectors to take substantial action to support public health. That includes public institutions that are funded by taxpayers like universities. UConn should take steps to radically expand paid sick leave, and in the event of any future outbreak immediately institute unrestricted paid sick leave.
Samples channeled the powerful sentiment behind his tweet’s virality. “Regardless of what would happen in practice, people need to receive across the board assurance that they will be taken care of and that things will not be on a case by case basis.”
Kobe Amos of Norwich is a University of Connecticut graduate.