LIMA — Inadequate sick leave policies will test whether American workers will stay home should they come in contact with the new coronavirus, posing a challenge to public health experts now encouraging the public to prepare for the COVID-19 outbreak to potentially disrupt their daily lives.
While Ohio remains at low risk, the virus is quickly spreading, with more than 150 confirmed cases and 11 deaths already reported in the U.S. as of Wednesday evening.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is asking anyone who may be infected with the virus — which generally spreads between people who are within 6 feet of each other — to stay home, even when symptoms are mild.
But following that advice will be difficult for workers who lack access to paid sick days.
“If you don’t have paid sick leave, you have to work,” said Eric Seiber, an associate professor of health services management and policy at The Ohio State University College of Public Health in Columbus. “And if you don’t show up for a shift, you risk not just a day of no pay. You might lose your job.”
The workers most likely to stay home, Seiber said, are those who already have comfortable jobs with paid time off and telecommuting privileges.
The most vulnerable workers — those earning the minimum wage, largely in the service sector — are also those who interact with the public most often.
“Those are the ones who have to show up. You can be replaced easily,” Seiber said.
That’s a concern as the Ohio Department of Health encourages Ohioans to start making plans to care for children, parents and neighbors should a loved one fall ill.
“We recognize there are people who don’t have access to sick leave,” said Kathy Luhn, Allen County health commissioner. “That’s part of our messaging to employers – how do they want to approach it? How can we encourage people to stay home so we’re not getting other workers sick?”
Luhn said it’s important to start planning now to reduce the chances of a community-level outbreak, which could overwhelm hospitals and disrupt daily life.
For families, that means planning for possible school closures. And for businesses, Luhn said that means taking another look at company sick leave policies and planning for increased absences.
“We don’t want people coming out when they’re sick,” she said.
The city of Lima is revisiting its emergency pandemic plans too, to ensure there is no major interruption in essential services.
“We’re not in an emergency now — that’s clear,” Mayor David Berger said during a Wednesday press conference. “But we are thinking about the implications if this were to become an emergency, how do we manage it?”
Reach Mackenzi Klemann at 567-242-0456.