On the 28th of April, Lucie Joseph was feeling sick as she rang up customers at Shell gas station in Delray Beach, Florida. According to Joseph, she was denied time off by her boss, who insisted on seeing a doctor’s note. Not only was Joseph denied time off, the owner of the gas station where she worked, Sun Gas Marketing and Petroleum also refused to offer her health insurance.
With no health insurance, she didn’t go to the hospital for adequate medical attention. Instead, she kept working seven more shifts over 10 days. It was when her symptoms got worse that Joseph decided to get tested for COVID-19. She tested positive for the virus on May 9 and was advised to quarantine immediately. Joseph tested positive twice over the next six weeks and texted her test results to a manager to keep them abreast of her current situation.
She didn’t return to work until she tested negative for COVID-19 two consecutive times. To her utter surprise, she was fired on June 15. When showing images of the text with her employer to the Center for Public Integrity, she recounted how stunned she was when she learned that she has been fired from her $13 per hour job which she uses to support herself and her 10-year-old son.
However, what Lucie Joseph does not know is that she had a legal right to job protection. Just two months before she was fired, President Donald Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Following this act, certain small and medium-sized businesses were to pay any workers infected with COVID-19 full salary for two weeks. Additionally, they were prohibited to fire employees for taking leave. Joseph, who was eventually paid two weeks’ wages, had no idea such law existed until she consulted an employment lawyer who covers unpaid wages.
However, Joseph isn’t the only one worker that’s unaware of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and Sun Gas Marketing and Petroleum isn’t the only company that has violated this act. In fact, in a document obtained through the Freedom of Information Act request, there are several hundreds of U.S businesses that are illegally denying paid leave to workers during the pandemic.
Asides from Joseph, Angely Rodriguez Lambert is yet another worker who was deprived of paid-leave provision. Rodriguez, who happens to be a cashier at a McDonald’s restaurant in Temescal, Oakland, California was one of the 11 employees that tested positive for COVID-19 in late May. And since she has to quarantine herself, she asked her employee if she could get paid while she recovered at home. Her boss however didn’t grant her request. Instead, she said she would check in with her supervisor. According to Rodriguez, she never got a response.
Under state law, Rodriguez gets up to five sick days a year. However, a five-day paid leave wasn’t enough to pay her bill while she recovered from COVID-19. Rodriguez, who earns $14.14 an hour, didn’t realise she had the right to get paid for two weeks during the quarantine.
Rodriguez and five co-workers are suing the franchise owner, VES McDonald’s, for allegedly breaking local labor laws, including a temporary Oakland ordinance that requires employers to give workers two paid weeks off if they called in sick during the pandemic. Rodriguez claimed that she was paid for 60 hours but is still owed for another 20 hours. According to court records, the company said it eventually paid all workers who asked for leave in mid-June.
As of June 12, close to 700 companies had violated the law’s paid-leave provision. According to the Labor Department records, businesses owe a total of $690,000 in unpaid wages to 527 employees. Some of these violators include six McDonald’s franchises and the franchise owners of a Comfort Suites, Courtyard by Marriott and Red Roof Inn.
Sadly, most of the workers are low-wage earners that work on construction sites, hotels, and food industries. According to Tanya Goldman, a former Labor Department policy adviser turned attorney at the nonprofit Center for Law and Social Policy, “Workers with low wages are most in need of paid leave, they literally cannot afford to stay home and take a sick day if they get COVID”, also vouched by a California employment lawyer.
Congress is planning on passing another stimulus bill that would extend paid sick days to workers that are not covered under the current law. Some of these workers include health care workers and employees at companies with over 500 workers. However, it is important to note that companies with fewer than 50 workers are exempted if they show paid leave will hurt their business seriously.