President Trump tours viral pathogenesis lab at National Institutes of Health. Photo by Shealah Craighead.
President Trump tours viral pathogenesis lab at National Institutes of Health. Photo by Shealah Craighead.

More state support needed to help stem the coronavirus tide

Like everyone else, I’m feeling shell-shocked by constant coronavirus (aka COVID-19) coverage. Unlike most everyone else, however, I’m a journalist. So I have to wallow in such coverage to keep on top of the latest latest. The better to be able to write about the emerging crisis with some facility.

Yet it’s difficult to know what to say at times like these. Particularly since more coverage of this pandemic can have the negative effect of frightening people to the point where they don’t think clearly. And start doing stuff like buying all the Purell they can find. Just so they can feel like they’re doing something to protect themselves and their families.

I’m not a medical professional, so I’m loathe to give medical advice. Beyond saying trust your health to scientific medicine rather than so-called “alternative” medicine. Because, as the saying goes, there is no alternative to medicine. There’s medicine and then there are practices that are either on their way to becoming medicine through rigorous scientific testing or are snake oil with no basis in anything other than anecdotes and marketing copy. So if you have the choice between talking to a doctor about a threat like coronavirus and talking to someone who is—shall we say—doctor-esque, talk to the former. Not the latter.

On the other hand, many of the leading government institutions responsible for safeguarding public health have faced budget cuts and politically motivated leadership purges in recent years. Which blunts my impulse to say things like “just do what the Centers for Disease Control says to do about protecting yourself from the coronavirus.” Because the initial response by federal agencies responsible for getting in front of outbreaks like COVID-19 has been underwhelming to say the least. Unsurprising, given the anti-science bias of the Trump administration. In fact, only in the last few days have the feds put a few billion on the table and started getting their act together a bit better.

A state of affairs that goes part of the way toward explaining why public health officials at the federal, state, and local levels can’t currently say much more about how to deal with the coronavirus than: “Wash Your Hands,” “Don’t Touch Your Face With Your Hands,” “Cover Your Mouth With Your Elbow When You Cough,” and “Stay Home When You’re Sick to Prevent the Spread of Any Virus.”

It’s that last admonition that really sticks in my craw. The first three are commonsensical and proven to have some efficacy during regular cold and flu seasons as well as during outbreaks of new viruses like the one we’re experiencing now. The fourth is the same, but has a major flaw… Many American workers don’t get paid sick days. And many of those who do can’t use them.

So most workers can’t just take days off. Many are in precarious jobs like temp work, part-time work, and day labor. “Gigs” in the hipster parlance of this era that makes slaving away in hopes of one day getting a regular shit job seem youthful and breezy and modern. The lexical equivalent of gilding a pig.

Now, it’s true that Massachusetts is ahead of a majority of states in promulgating a couple of relevant reforms in the last few years. In 2014, voters passed a statewide referendum drafted by a coalition of labor groups that enacted an Earned Sick Time law in 2015. It’s a good start as it mandates one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked—up to a minimum of 40 hours a year. But it mainly covers workers in regular full-time jobs. And only those who work for employers with 11 or more employees are guaranteed paid time off—the rest getting unpaid time off. And workers can only use the sick time they have “earned” to that point over the course of each year—and only after the first 90 days of the year have passed. Although employers can use an “alternate accrual method” that gives their workers all 40 hours of sick time at the beginning of the calendar year—which most won’t. Regardless, unused hours won’t carry forward into subsequent years unless employers have a policy that allows it—which most don’t. 

Also, self-employed workers will have a much more difficult time arranging to participate in the system. Plus, even for full-time workers in regular employment arrangements, the best the law will provide is a work week—five days—of earned sick time at the end of each calendar (or benefit) year. And there are a variety of restrictions on the use of that time. Meanwhile, many countries provide a minimum of two work weeks of sick time for any reason at any time during the year (though some provide much more) and other US states have more generous allowances as well.

Fortunately, the Commonwealth also enacted a Paid Family and Medical Leave law recently—again due to labor movement lobbying. It provides up to 26 weeks of paid leave to take care of sick family members, bond with newborns or newly adopted children, or take care of oneself when seriously ill and covers a broader array of W-2 and 1099 workers than the Earned Sick Time law. Which could be very helpful in giving lots more people the paid time off they need to help public health officials blunt the effects of the coronavirus.

Unfortunately, it only goes into partial effect on Jan 1, 2021, and full effect on July 1, 2021. So, maybe it’ll help with the next pandemic. Or round two of this one (d’oh!).

Given that most Bay State workers will only be able to take a very limited amount of time off to avoid spreading COVID-19—even with some assistance from the Earned Sick Time law and with the Paid Family and Medical Leave law waiting in the wings—I think this would be a good time for people to start demanding that their elected officials back immediate political reforms that would make it possible for everyone who needs to stay home when they’re sick to be able to do so.

Times of crisis can be good periods to get things done in the political sphere. Like when my labor nonprofit, Campaign on Contingent Work, almost got an omnibus contingent worker rights bill through the state legislature because a 1997 strike by the Teamsters at UPS against the company’s overuse of temps made it politically expedient for politicians to care about the plight of workers in precarious jobs. But only for a brief moment. My organization had already met with then-Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci and he seemed ready to sign our bill into law. But the strike ended before that could happen, and the whole lightning push by the state pols to pass our legislation evaporated. 

So I suggest people push state legislators immediately for two key improvements: A) Mandate two work weeks—10 days—of paid (not “earned”) sick time to be available automatically at the start of each calendar year for all workers in the Commonwealth while letting their unused paid sick time carry forward to future years, and B) Start the Paid Family and Medical Leave program without delay (not in 2021). Hopefully, the same labor organizations that got these reforms enacted can refine and expand such demands. And spearhead fast public campaigns to get them through the legislature to the governor’s desk in record time. But if they don’t want to strike while the political iron is hot, then perhaps other social forces can step forward. Even one motivated individual, working very hard with forward-thinking elected officials, could make all the difference at this critical juncture.

There is even more to do on the federal level to reverse the screwups of the Trump administration in managing the coronavirus crisis. Although we’ll never get back the time we lost by not having enough test kits ready nationwide in a timely fashion. The Sanders campaign actually put out a great email this week doubling down on its Medicare for All platform—explaining how a proper national health care program would allow for far more robust responses to future pandemics than the feds’ anemic one this time around. But the state level reforms of the type I’m proposing are actionable and would do much to help mitigate the damage that COVID-19 will do hereabouts. If passed at speed.

Will concerned citizens and politicians step up and get these and other reforms through the legislature in time to lower the casualty count from coronavirus in Massachusetts? Only time will tell. But we don’t have much time, if the experiences of China, Iran, and Italy are any guide.

So let’s get cracking. 

3/11/20 Editor’s Note: references to the term “epidemic” have been changed to “pandemic” in the online version of this article to reflect today’s announcement by the World Health Organization that the coronavirus outbreak is now a global pandemic.

Workers whose bosses refuse to let them stay home when they’re sick should email me at if they’d like to discuss the possibility of the independent press shedding some light on their plight.

Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2020 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.