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Fever, but must work. Will coronavirus change paid sick leave in Michigan?

Like a lot of Michigan restaurant workers, bartender James Hark worries just about every time he gets sick. He realizes he could pass along his illness to his customers.

But with no paid sick leave, can he afford to take time off from his job in a Detroit restaurant?

His answer is usually no.

“I’m going to have to go to work no matter what,” Hark told Bridge. “If I miss one week or even a day, it messes my whole pay schedule for things I have to pay: utility bills, car payment, insurance.”

With more than 300,000 restaurant workers in Michigan, the dilemma of whether to stay home or power through an illness at work takes on fresh urgency given confirmation Tuesday of two presumptive positive tests for coronavirus disease, the state’s first known illnesses. One of the cases involved a patient from Wayne County, the county where Hark works. 

 If you feel sick you don’t go to work. But that’s a conflict with the fact some people don’t have sick time. ‘How do I pay for my food or my rent or my heat?’ This is really difficult for a lot of people.” — Ruth Kraut, Washtenaw County Health Department

Many low-wage and hourly employees work in businesses with fewer than 50 workers, which under a controversial Michigan law passed in 2018 by a Republican Legislature and governor means they generally have no legal right to paid sick leave. As coronavirus enters Michigan, the state’s restricted sick leave law is sure to draw renewed debate. Though not among Senate and House GOP leaders, at least for now. 

Amber McCann, spokeswoman for GOP Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, declined comment when asked if Shirkey would consider legislation to expand sick leave, given the potential for the spread of coronavirus.

“It’s not a topic that has come up,” she said.

Bridge also reached out to a spokesperson for GOP House Speaker Lee Chatfield on the issue of sick leave coverage in Michigan, but has not yet heard back. 

Asked whether the Michigan Chamber of Commerce would support expanded sick leave for Michigan residents, spokesperson Wendy Block sent a statement referencing discussions at the federal level: 

“Given the rate at which the coronavirus continues to spread, we are encouraged that the president and congressional leaders seem to agree in principle that there may be a need to provide wage and other support for impacted workers and businesses alike.”

Lower-wage workers with no paid sick leave, such as restaurant staff, often feel they have no choice but to show up for work, despite a troubling cough or fever. That puts them a sneeze away from untold thousands of Michigan residents who frequent bars and restaurants on any given night. 

Of course, such workers dominate plenty of other fields — from retail sales to nursing home aides. And they face a similar dilemma, which forces them to pit their financial well being against the potential health risk to the broader public.

Ruth Kraut, deputy health officer for the Washtenaw County Health Department, said the two positive test results announced Tuesday in Michigan underline what’s at stake.

“It’s even more clear that if you feel sick you don’t go to work,” she said. “But that’s a conflict with the fact some people don’t have sick time. ‘How do I pay for my food or my rent or my heat?’ This is really difficult for a lot of people.”

Overall, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 31 percent of U.S. low-income workers in the private sector have access to paid sick leave.

Meanwhile, U.S. coronavirus cases topped 1,000 patients on Wednesday, with 29 deaths, according to daily tracking by Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, there were more than 121,000 cases and over 4,300 deaths.

How we got here 

In July 2018, state canvassers approved a paid sick leave ballot proposal that, if passed, would have allowed Michigan workers to accrue paid sick leave for themselves and to care for family members.

Under the initiative, employers with more than 10 workers were required to provide up to 72 hours of paid sick time a year to all employees. Employers with fewer than 10 workers would have to provide 40 hours paid and 32 hours unpaid a year.

Business groups, led by the Michigan Chamber, strongly opposed the measure, saying it was a well-meaning but reckless policy that would hamper the state’s economic recovery since the Great Recession.

Instead of allowing it to go on the ballot that November, Republican legislators adopted the proposals in September with the express purpose of later gutting the measures in lame-duck session following those elections. 

The Republican changes included cutting the maximum amount of paid sick leave from 72 hours a year to 40 hours per year. And crucially, exempted from paid sick leave any business with fewer than 50 employees. That meant more than 160,000 small businesses with more than 1 million workers did not have to provide paid sick leave, though they were free to do so voluntarily. 

Then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed the measure into law in the 2018 lame duck session shortly before he was succeeded in office by Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who supports paid sick leave. 

Danielle Atkinson, a key activist behind the sick leave ballot measure, said those revisions could prove costly if coronavirus gets a foothold in Michigan.

“If I have an employer with 51 employees, I can have sick leave. But if I work at a company with 49, I can’t,” she said. “That makes no health sense.”

Will Washington step in? 

As coronavirus spreads, Democrats in Congress are pushing a new version of a sick leave bill that would add 14 days of sick leave in the case of a public health emergency. Trump administration officials are reportedly considering adding sick leave coverage to workers without it as a means of slowing the spread of the virus.

Michigan has about 155,000 direct care workers, with many working in the homes of seniors to assist with cooking or cleaning or in nursing homes across the state. Their job — which typically includes lifting older people out of bed, helping them walk, or bathing or feeding them — inevitably puts them in close contact with seniors, a group that is many times more likely to become severely sick or die if they contract the new coronavirus.

James Hark

Atkinson said many of those workers receive no paid sick leave.

“The people who are taking care of our elderly and loved ones are having to go to work sick,” she said.

In Washington state, 19 of 23 coronavirus deaths are linked to a Seattle-area nursing home. Health officials on Monday announced three additional deaths of nursing home residents, their ages ranging from over age 70 to over 90.

Nik Cole, a chef at a different Detroit restaurant, counts herself more fortunate than some in the industry. She makes about $17 an hour and can afford to take a day off if she is sick. Her restaurant, with just a handful of workers, has no paid sick leave.

“I can probably afford that more than my co-workers,” Cole told Bridge. “If they take a day off, they can’t make that up.

“Everybody gets sick. Everybody should have sick leave.”

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