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When should sick people go to work?

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks about the coronavirus

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks about the coronavirus during a media availability on Capitol Hill on March 3, 2020 in Washington. Credit: AP/Alex Brandon

Sometimes it takes a momentary crisis to help us see a constant truth. 

As the coronavirus spreads slowly and the fear of it rages like fire in a haybarn, politicians and activists clamor to assure that workers who call in sick will get paid.

“Right now, the experts are telling people: Stay home if you’re sick,” Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat, said Monday. “That’s why paid sick days are such a critical part of this response.”

Murray is sponsoring a new version of a sick-leave bill that’s been sitting around the Senate for years, quietly minding its own business. The plan would allow all employees of companies of any size to accrue seven days of paid sick time annually, and guarantee an additional 14 paid days off during a public health emergency.

The coronavirus-created thought behind this makes sense: “We certainly don’t want carriers spreading the disease because they can’t afford to stay home, so we need sick pay to fight this epidemic.” But do we want sick people working and spreading disease because they can’t afford to go without pay, pandemic or not?

 It’s a no, right? 

So ideally the emergency leads to clear thinking, and the fix spurred by the pandemic, sick pay for all, becomes the new normal and workers stop sneeze-spraying viruses on my Happy Meals in a desperate bid to pay rent. But there are also proposals floating around Washington to force and fund sick pay during this epidemic, but do nothing to institute the policy permanently. Why? Because for many Americans it’s only in a highly publicized emergency that it’s easy to accept that the sick need the law.

It reminds me of what happened in 2012, when a shooter in Aurora, Colorado, opened fire during a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises," killing 12 and injuring 70. The five area hospitals treating victims announced they would not bill victims for care, to public acclaim. No one wants mass-shooting victims bankrupted by the bills for their care. 

But then you must wonder, who do we want to be bankrupted by emergency medical bills? No one, right? 

So why do so many of us want to see those who need help get it, and demand laws that guarantee that help, when their tribulations are part of a highly publicized emergency, but not a normal need? It’s mostly because in the highly publicized emergency, we accept that people really need the help, and deserve it. And in a pandemic, because we fear for our own safety.

Most of those Americans who oppose expanding the social safety net don’t do so out of meanness. Often they fear being ripped off by the lazy or imprudent. They’re willing to help community members who are failing, but infuriated by the idea of supporting those who are not trying.

That’s why we hear so many calls for work requirements for Medicaid and food stamps. Because people, quite reasonably, want to know the folks getting help both need and deserve it. And when people get shot in a massacre or infected in a pandemic, we know they need that help.

Nobody ought to go to work sick, and a law that guarantees sick employees can stay home and get paid is needed. And no one ought to be bankrupted by unavoidable medical bills, a fate that threatens the hardworking middle-class but not the Medicaid-eligible poor, and laws guaranteeing they won’t be are needed, too.

But such laws are needed all the time and for everyone, not just for splashy national emergencies and victims whose tragedies dominated the news. 

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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