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Stay home or work sick? Omicron poses a conundrum

As the raging omicron variant of COVID-19 infects workers across the nation, millions of those whose jobs don’t provide paid sick days are having to choose between their health and their paycheck.

While many companies instituted more robust sick leave policies at the beginning of the pandemic, some of those have since been scaled back with the rollout of the vaccines, even though omicron has managed to evade the shots. Meanwhile, the current labor shortage is adding to the pressure of workers having to decide whether to show up to their job sick if they can’t afford to stay home.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Daniel Schneider, professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “As staffing gets depleted because people are out sick, that means that those that are on the job have more to do and are even more reluctant to call in sick when they in turn get sick.”

Low-income hourly workers are especially vulnerable. Nearly 80% of all private sector workers get at least one paid sick day, according to a national compensation survey of employee benefits conducted in March by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But only 33% of workers whose wages are at the bottom 10% get paid sick leave, compared with 95% in the top 10%.

A survey this past fall of roughly 6,600 hourly low-wage workers conducted by Harvard’s Shift Project, which focuses on inequality, found that 65% of those workers who reported being sick in the last month said they went to work anyway. That’s lower than the 85% who showed up to work sick before the pandemic, but much higher than it should be in the middle of a public health crisis. Schneider says it could get worse because of omicron and the labor shortage.

What’s more, Schneider noted that the share of workers with paid sick leave before the pandemic barely budged during the pandemic — 50% versus 51% respectively. He further noted many of the working poor surveyed don’t even have $400 in emergency funds, and families will now be even more financially strapped with the expiration of the child tax credit, which had put a few hundred dollars in families’ pockets every month.

The Associated Press interviewed one worker who started a new job with the state of New Mexico last month and started experiencing COVID-like symptoms earlier in the week. The worker, who asked not to be named because it might jeopardize their employment, took a day off to get tested and two more days to wait for the results.

A supervisor called and told the worker they would qualify for paid sick days only if the COVID test turns out to be positive. If the test is negative, the worker will have to take the days without pay, since they haven’t accrued enough time for sick leave.

“I thought I was doing the right thing by protecting my co-workers,” said the worker, who is still awaiting the results and estimates it will cost $160 per day of work missed if they test negative. “Now I wish I just would’ve gone to work and not said anything.”

A Trader Joe’s worker in California, who also asked not to be named because they didn’t want to risk their job, said the company lets workers accrue paid time off that they can use for vacations or sick days. But once that time is used up, employees often feel like they can’t afford to take unpaid days.

“I think many people now come to work sick or with what they call ‘allergies’ because they feel they have no other choice,” the worker said.

Trader Joe’s offered hazard pay until last spring, and even paid time off if workers had COVID-related symptoms. But the worker said those benefits have ended. The company also no longer requires customers to wear masks in all of its stores.

Other companies are similarly curtailing sick time that they offered earlier in the pandemic. Kroger, the country’s biggest traditional grocery chain, is ending some benefits for unvaccinated salaried workers in an attempt to compel more of them to get the jab as COVID-19 cases rise again. Unvaccinated workers enrolled in Kroger’s health care plan will no longer be eligible to receive up to two weeks paid emergency leave if they become infected — a policy that was put into place last year when vaccines were unavailable.

Meanwhile, Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, is slashing pandemic-related paid leave in half — from two weeks to one — after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced isolation requirements for people who don’t have symptoms after they test positive.

Workers have received some relief from a growing number of states. In the last decade, 14 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or ballot measures requiring employers to provide paid sick leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

On the federal front, however, the movement has stalled. Congress passed a law in the spring of 2020 requiring most employers to provide paid sick leave for employees with COVID-related illnesses. But the requirement expired on Dec. 31 of that same year. Congress later extended tax credits for employers who voluntarily provide paid sick leave, but the extension lapsed at the end of September, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In November, the U.S. House passed a version of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan that would require employers to provide 20 days of paid leave for employees who are sick or caring for a family member. But the fate of that bill is uncertain in the Senate.

“We can’t do a patchwork sort of thing. It has to be holistic. It has to be meaningful,” said Josephine Kalipeni, executive director at Family Values @ Work, a national network of 27 state and local coalitions helping to advocate for such policies as paid sick days.

The U.S. is one of only 11 countries worldwide without any federal mandate for paid sick leave, according to a 2020 study by the World Policy Analysis Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

On the flipside are small business owners like Dawn Crawley, CEO of House Cleaning Heroes, who can’t afford to pay workers when they are out sick. But Crawley is trying to help in other ways. She recently drove one cleaner who didn’t have a car to a nearby testing site. She later bought the cleaner some medicine, orange juice and oranges.

“If they are out, I try to give them money but at the same time my company has got to survive,” Crawley said. ″If the company goes under, no one has work.”

Even when paid sick leave is available, workers aren’t always made aware of it.

Ingrid Vilorio, who works at a Jack in the Box restaurant in Castro Valley, California, started feeling sick last March and soon tested positive for COVID. Vilorio alerted a supervisor, who didn’t tell her she was eligible for paid sick leave — as well as supplemental COVID leave — under California law.

Vilorio said her doctor told her to take 15 days off, but she decided to take just 10 because she had bills to pay. Months later, a co-worker told Vilorio she was owed sick pay for the time she was off. Working through Fight for $15, a group that works to unionize fast food workers, Vilorio and her colleagues reported the restaurant to the county health department. Shortly after that, she was given back pay.

But Vilorio, who speaks Spanish, said through a translator that problems persist. Workers are still getting sick, she said, and are often afraid to speak up.

“Without our health, we can’t work,” she said. “We’re told that we’re front line workers, but we’re not treated like it.”


Newly affirmed, tribe looks at casino plans with fresh eyes

BOSTON — As he begins his first full year in office, the new head of a Massachusetts tribe says he intends to take a cautious approach to gambling while turning attention to social challenges and other economic opportunities for its members.

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Brian Weeden, who is 29 and is the youngest ever to old the post, said last month’s decision by President Joe Biden’s administration to affirm the tribe’s reservation and reverse a controversial Trump-era order gives the tribe legal footing to continue pursuing its long standing casino dreams.

But he said tribal leaders also want members to look at the idea with fresh eyes, given how much the landscape for gambling has changed.

Massachusetts currently has three major casinos — MGM Springfield, Encore Boston Harbor and the slot parlor Plainridge Park. The separate Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe has also broken ground on a more modest gambling hall on Martha’s Vineyard, though that’s been mired in legal uncertainty. And state lawmakers are weighing legislation to legalize sports betting in Massachusetts.

“We’re back to the drawing board, basically,” said Weeden, who took office in May, in a wide-ranging interview Thursday. “There’s still an appetite for gaming. It just needs to be a smart approach. It has to be different from the past. We need to learn from our mistakes and proceed with caution.”

Meanwhile, anti-casino residents in Taunton, the city where the Mashpee Wampanoag project is proposed, have asked a Boston federal judge to reopen their legal challenge.

They argue, as they have before, that the tribe wasn’t eligible for a reservation because it wasn’t an officially recognized tribe in 1934, the year the federal Indian Reorganization Act, which laid the foundation for modern federal Indian policy, became law.

The opponents have also argued the tribe’s lands in Taunton shouldn’t have been included in its reservation because they’re some 50 miles from the tribe’s home base on Cape Cod and weren’t part of the tribe’s historical domain. The tribe’s reservation encompasses about 170 acres in the town of Mashpee and another 150 acres acres in Taunton.

Weeden said the latest legal challenge won’t deter the tribe, which traces its ancestry to the Native Americans whom the Pilgrims encountered centuries ago but which was federally recognized only in 2007.

Just prior to last month’s decision, the tribe extended its deal with its Malaysian casino developer partners, Genting Berhad, for another year, according to Weeden.

But he said the tribe, which has roughly 3,000 members, is looking to reach new financial terms to rein in its debt to the gambling giant, which is about $600 million and growing, but which comes due only if a gambling hall actually opens. Company spokespersons didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

Weeden said tribal members should also consider whether to scale back their casino ambitions.

Before litigation and the Trump administration order derailed it, the tribe broke ground in 2016 on a $1 billion resort casino in a former industrial park. Dubbed First Light, the resort was to include a hotel and shopping, dining and entertainment options, including a water park.

Opting to build a more modest slot parlor or bingo hall, Weeden said, would exempt it from a 17% state tax on gaming revenues, even if it meant not being able to offer popular table games like blackjack and poker.

Weeden said the tribe also shouldn’t rule out abandoning the casino plan altogether and finding other ways to bring financial stability to the tribe. He’d like to see it look into opening tax-free smoke shops, tax-free gas stations, recreational marijuana shops, and other economic development initiatives on its lands.

“We need to exercise our sovereignty,” Weeden said. “Casinos are just low-hanging fruit.”

The new chair says he also intends to focus more on homelessness, substance use and other social ills facing the tribe.

Next month, tribal leaders hope to present to members a plan to spend down the tribe’s roughly $15 million allocation from Biden’s coronavirus stimulus bill. Weeden says they will also pursue federal funds through the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill Biden recently signed into law, which includes some $11 billion for tribes.

Among the projects being considered is the construction of tiny homes or cabins where homeless members can live temporarily, Weeden said. The tribe also hopes to bolster staffing and programming for substance use, mental health and other critical health services.

And with the national reckoning on racism reviving calls for reparations for Black slavery, Weeden said the tribe also intends to step up its own calls for restitution.

He says the state should return seized lands or provide financial compensation as the tribe’s current landholdings represent less than 1% of its ancestral territory.

“Everything going on in this country around social injustice and racial injustice, that’s all fine and good,” Weeden said. “But the original inhabitants of this country are still fighting for what little land we have. Native Americans still don’t have their fair share.”


Golden Globe Awards carry on, without stars or a telecast

If the Golden Globe Awards aren’t on television, will anyone care?

That’s just one of the uneasy questions facing the embattled Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which is proceeding with its film awards Sunday night without a telecast, nominees, celebrity guests, a red carpet, a host, press or even a livestream. In a year beset by controversy, the self-proclaimed biggest party in Hollywood, has been reduced to little more than a Twitter feed.

Members of the HFPA and some recipients of the group’s philanthropic grants are gathering at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for a 90-minute private event starting at 9 p.m. ET Sunday. The names of the film and television winners will be revealed to the world in real time on the organization’s social media feeds and website. Special emphasis, they say, will be given to their charitable efforts over the years.

That the organization is proceeding with any kind of event came as a surprise to many in Hollywood. The HFPA came under fire after a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed in February ethical lapses and a stunning lack of diversity — there was not a single Black journalist in the 87-person group. Studios and PR firms threatened to boycott. Tom Cruise even returned his three Golden Globes, while other A-listers condemned the group on social media.

They pledged reformlast year, but even after a public declaration during the 78th show, their longtime broadcast partner NBC announced in May that it would not air the 2022 Golden Globes because, “Change of this magnitude takes time and work.” The broadcaster typically pays some $60 million for the rights to air the show, which ranks among the most-watched awards shows behind the Oscars and the Grammys.

Though often ridiculed, Hollywood had come to accept the Golden Globes as a legitimate and helpful stop in a competitive awards season. And for audiences around the world, it was a reasonably lively night, with glamorous fashion, major stars, the promise of champagne-fueled speeches, and hosts — from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to Ricky Gervais — that regularly poked fun at the HFPA.

After the NBC blow, it was widely expected that the HFPA would simply sit the year out. Hollywood studios and publicists also largely opted out from engaging with the group as they had in years past, with some declining to provide screeners of films for consideration. When nominees were announced last month, few celebrated publicly.

This year Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical drama “Belfast,” about growing up during the Troubles, and Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” a gothic Western set in 1925 Montana with Kirsten Dunst and Benedict Cumberbatch, both received a leading seven nominations, including best picture. HBO’s “Succession” led the TV side with five nominations, including nods for best drama.

Many A-listers got acting nominations as well, including Will Smith (“King Richard”), Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“Don’t Look Up”), Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”), Ben Affleck (“The Tender Bar”) and Lady Gaga (“House of Gucci”). In a normal year, the nomination would be added to promotional campaigns and advertisements, but this year most chose to not acknowledge the nod.

The press association claims that in the months since its 2021 show, it has remade itself. The group has added a chief diversity officer; overhauled its board; inducted 21 new members, including six Black journalists; brought in the NAACP on a five-year partnership; and updated its code of conduct.


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