A sign on display before officials with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), give an update on the group's response in Latin America to the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, at their headquarters in Washington, DC, USA, 06 March 2020. The PAHO is a regional office of the Americas for the World Health Organization.Pan American Health Organization updates on coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, Washington, USA - 06 Mar 2020

Retail workers might be able to get paid time off during the coronavirus pandemic, but only, it seems, for COVID-19 cause.

This week, big retailers including Walmart Inc., Macy’s Inc. and Target Corp. made gestures toward addressing their workers’ safety by issuing emergency leave policies that relax requirements against missing work, and offer up to two weeks paid sick leave for workers with a COVID-19 diagnosis or who have been formally quarantined. 

Target chief executive office Brian Cornell wrote that the company was “encouraging sick team members to stay home and asking our teams to travel only if it’s business critical.” Macy’s chairman and ceo Jeff Gennette similarly wrote that the company was being “proactive with our colleagues to both protect their health and provide support for those who develop medical issues related to the virus.” Walmart’s leadership wrote that “we want any associate who is not feeling well to stay home.”  

Such measures may provide some necessary relief during the crisis, but might fall short of addressing the on-the-ground issues for many workers, who might still lack access to COVID-19 tests where they live, and who might not be able to afford taking unpaid time off if they merely suspect they have flu-like symptoms, some employment experts said.

“First of all, we should applaud companies for [offering], because very few of their workers are covered by paid sick leave unless they’re located in a state where paid sick leave is the law,” said Susan Lambert, a professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. 

“It is certainly good they’re recognizing this [but] the limitation, from a pragmatic standpoint, and a public health standpoint is, we should be allowing workers to stay home if they think they have it.” 

Public health officials have preached social distancing and self-quarantining to slow down the community spread of COVID-19, the respiratory flu outbreak gaining ground in the U.S and causing more serious illness to the elderly and patients with underlying health conditions.  

But while white-collar employees are increasingly directed to work from home, retail workers face the dilemma of showing up to work in customer-facing roles.

Testing for COVID-19 has been a fraught issue in recent weeks, amid questions about the actual availability of test kits to diagnose patients, and the capacity to process tests as the illness spreads. Testing has moved slowly in the U.S., as initially only the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was able to conduct the tests, at a time when the agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hadn’t yet permitted other hospital labs to conduct the testing. 

Since then, public officials have highlighted the quandary of increasing demand for COVID-19 testing, saying it could overwhelm health-care providers.   

In New York, for instance, city council member Mark Levine, who chairs the council’s committee on health, urged restraint on seeking testing, saying health-care providers have to prioritize more serious cases. 

“If every person who feels ill or thinks they were exposed to someone with COVID-19 tries to get a test, it will push the health-care system to the breaking point,” he wrote in a Twitter thread Thursday.

“At this point, testing — and the staff, facilities and resources around it — needs to be reserved for the ACUTELY SICK.” 

Globally, there are at least 137,445 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and more than 5,000 deaths, though the actual number of unconfirmed COVID-19 cases remains an unknown, making it difficult to assess the actual fatality rate. 

The retailers’ emergency policies announced this week do provide options for workers to stay home if they suspect they are ill. Walmart, for instance, has said that it will waive its attendance policy until April and allow workers to use their existing paid time off to miss work if they feel unwell. Target similarly said it waived its absenteeism policy, and that it would offer its current benefits including paid family leave and backup day care for eligible team members and virtual medical visits. 

But those measures don’t go far enough to address the unprecedented climate of uncertainty for retail workers, who, if they are unable to be tested for COVID-19, may end up opting to go to work rather than miss out on a needed paycheck, employment experts said.  

“So many people don’t have access to tests right now, so it’s a very limited relief for the vast majority of workers,” said Veena Dubal, associate professor of law at the University of California, Hastings. 

“And retailers already operate through lean business models, where these workers are probably not going to get the hours they normally get, because consumer shopping has decreased so dramatically.”

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