Some Illinois Workers Are Forced to Take Unpaid Leave as COVID-19 Drags On

In the first half of January, an estimated 8.8 million U.S. workers were reported to have stayed home either because they were sick with COVID-19 or were caring for someone who was sick. 

According to Stastia, a consumer data provider, this is not only an increase of more than two million people year over year, but also the biggest workforce shortage since the start of the pandemic.

The news comes as some workers are running out of employer-provided sick days, or don’t have enough earned sick days to begin with. 

Genesis Mantuano, a factory worker in Elk Grove, took unpaid leave for five days to care for her 3-year-old son who tested positive for COVID-19. 

“My son tested positive for COVID and he has had a fever for about three days. When I found out, I told my supervisor that my son tested positive but I didn’t,” Mantuano said in Spanish. “[My employer] had me quarantine and just told me that because I didn’t test positive, that they couldn’t pay me. I had known that previously they did pay you if a family member tested positive. ​​In this case, the rules [at my work] have changed and they’re not paying for sick leave anymore.”

When the pandemic first hit, the Department of Labor enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requiring employers to provide paid sick leave to employees who are unable to work due to a quarantine related to COVID-19, including caring for sick family members. It has since expired.

“That ended in December of 2020,” said ​​Jorge Mújica, a strategic organizer for the community labor advocate organization Arise Chicago.

Mújica said there hasn’t been anything similar passed in Illinois to replace the expired federal act.

“People are still asking employers to pay for their quarantine but employers are gladly denying that petition,” Mújica said. “You get sick, you go home and you lose your pay. In March of 2021, there was also a provision to get paid but that expired too.”

Mantuano said the five-day leave took a toll on her financially.

“It has an economic impact because the bills don’t wait for you,” she said. “The rent doesn’t wait. One has payments to make. I have to buy a lot of things, especially food.”

Nadia Torres, who works full time for two cleaning companies, was out of work due to illness from COVID for more than five days with ongoing symptoms. At one job, she is new and hasn’t earned any sick time yet. At the other, she has less than two days of paid sick time.

“I feel very alone,” Torres told WTTW News in Spanish. “I tried doing everything right for the past two years. I got vaccinated, I’ve been wearing a mask … when I asked my employers for help, they told me the Family and Medical Leave Act didn’t apply to me …  I realized I’m left to depend on my own resources.”