Maria Bernal, an employee at a Jack in the Box in Folsom, California, couldn’t read the orders popping up on her screen. Her vision was blurry, her hands shook from chills and her head felt heavy.
A pharmacist told her she probably had COVID-19. When she told her boss, the manager told Bernal to keep working.
“Don’t worry, everyone has it, you can still work. Just wear a mask and don’t tell anyone,” the manager said, according to a Jan. 14 complaint Bernal filed with Sacramento County’s public health department.
As the omicron variant knocked out swaths of the labor force, people in a variety of jobs — fast-food workers, grocery clerks, teachers — say they have been under immense pressure to report to work while feeling sick or having tested positive with the virus.
Recently changed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ratcheted up the pressure, workers told The Los Angeles Times, with employers calling back ill employees or trying to keep them on the job while their COVID-19 status is unclear. The CDC shortened its recommendation for isolation for people who are infected with the virus but don’t have symptoms, or who are on the mend, to five days from 10.
“A lot of workers feel pressure to come in — a supervisor is leaning on them, saying, ‘I really need you today,'” said Kristen Harknett, a professor of social behavioral sciences at UC San Francisco who has polled service sector workers during the pandemic.
Two-thirds of service workers surveyed in the months leading up to the omicron surge said they did not stay home when they were feeling sick and went to work ill. The numbers highlight the precarious situation for workers without sick leave, Harknett said. They also show the pressure of chronic short staffing, threats from bosses and the possibility of losing pay that also causes people to keep going to work, she said.
Pressures have only built since then.
In California, officials took a further step to battle shortages of health care workers as intensive care units filled up with COVID-19 patients. A policy change allows health care workers who have tested positive for the coronavirus but don’t have any symptoms to return to work immediately. And at facilities with the most severe staffing shortages, symptomatic staff are allowed to work with COVID-19 patients.
Officials have said that the move, criticized by some as reckless, was necessary to keep hospitals staffed and essential medical care going through another COVID-19 surge, and that workers are outfitted with protective N95 masks and tested frequently.
In the private sector, that is not the case. Ill workers are serving meals, taking orders and talking to co-workers and customers through cloth or surgical masks that offer less protection and raise the risks for all.
In the absence of a national effort to provide testing at the onset of the omicron surge, corporate giants such as Google and JPMorgan Chase offered employees — many of whom work from home — high-end testing for free.
The Biden administration has moved to make rapid tests accessible to all households, with the first shipment of free tests due to go out by the end of the month. But many lower-wage workers struggle to access these tests on their own, and many employers are not helping.
“Leaving workers in limbo is the last thing you want to do as an organization,” said Hakan Ozcelik, a professor of management at the Sacramento State College of Business.
Employers should set clear rules on testing and return-to-work policies, explain why they work the way they do and continually update employees, he said. They should not be leaving workers to navigate public health guidance about testing, isolation periods, masks or vaccination on their own.
A recent run on over-the-counter rapid tests made it harder for people to make quicker, more informed decisions about going to work. And as return times for polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, lab test results have stretched, workers with limited time off or who can’t afford to be off the job are showing up to work as normal.
Bernal, the Jack in the Box employee, said she does not know what the chain’s protocols and sick-leave benefits are for workers who contract the virus, as no manager at the company has given her this information.
The complaint Bernal filed with Sacramento County’s public health department alongside three of her co-workers at the Folsom Jack in the Box alleges restaurant management dissuaded workers from quarantining, encouraged them to cover up or not disclose their symptoms to their co-workers and failed to take additional safety precautions.
The complaint says the restaurant has allowed several staff members with COVID-like symptoms to continue working without wearing masks, including the store manager. About a third of workers at the Folsom location have been working with COVID-like symptoms or were home sick with a confirmed COVID case in the first two weeks of January, the complaint says.
Jack in the Box did not respond to requests for comment.
Crystal Orozco, another Jack in the Box worker in Folsom, said in the complaint her manager asked to see a doctor’s note after Orozco texted the manager reporting she was sick with a fever and a cough, and was having trouble finding a COVID-19 test.
Orozco doesn’t have health insurance and asked if the company could pay for her doctor’s visit. The manager never responded, according to Orozco’s statement submitted with the complaint.
With severe staffing shortages, particularly in the food and retail sectors, and lapses in safety nets, such as mandated paid sick leave, the average workplace has become more dangerous during the omicron wave, workers and labor advocates say.
On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers reached an agreement to reinstate legislation requiring employers to give workers up to two weeks of supplemental paid sick leave to recover from COVID-19 or care for a sick family member.
A similar law from 2021 expired Sept. 30, leaving many workers vulnerable.
In Harknett’s recent work, half of more than 6,000 workers surveyed in service sectors such as retail, fast food and grocery said they did not have access to any paid sick leave.
After the CDC shortened its isolation guidance, Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz wrote letters to Amazon and Walmart, two companies that cut back the number of paid days off their employees can take for COVID-19 quarantining, urging them to reconsider. Koretz reminded the companies that employees at their Los Angeles locations were still entitled to a full 80 hours of paid leave.
“Workers in Amazon facilities should not have to choose between caring for themselves, a sick family member or child and putting food on the table,” Koretz said in the letter, sent this month.
People in the city of L.A. employed by a company with 500 or more employees within the city limits, or 2,000 nationally, are guaranteed 80 hours of supplemental paid sick leave, per a June emergency order.
Calls for more proactive COVID-19 policies, including paid sick leave and more uniform guidance on testing in the workplace, are growing nationally.
“I think testing is such a huge mitigation strategy. We could have had a better one,” said Autumn Laidler, a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system.
Laidler and others in the teachers union prompted a sudden shutdown of the city’s schools in early January when they voted to refuse to return to in-person work because of surging COVID cases. The union wanted more robust testing, as well as rules requiring that schools transition to remote learning when the number of staff isolating due to COVID cases or exposures rises to a certain threshold.
A child care provider at a facility in Las Vegas was told to come to work even after reporting to her boss she had been exposed to the virus and wasn’t feeling well, according to screenshots of text messages reviewed by The Times. The facility was short-staffed, and its director believed the worker, who is vaccinated, was well-protected.
The worker got a PCR test and went to work. After her shift, she was able to find a rapid test. The result was positive.
When she returned to work a few days later, the message from management was to not talk about what happened. “They said, ‘We didn’t let anyone know about your situation. You’re fine now, you can just work.’ “