Nurses say they won't get paid time off if they catch coronavirus - and it could force them to choose between paying bills or heading to work while sick

Laurie Kuypers, a registered nurse, reaches into a car to take a nasopharyngeal swab from a patient at a drive-through COVID-19 coronavirus testing station for University of Washington Medicine patients Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Seattle.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Nurses fear they won't get paid sick leave if they contract COVID-19.

  • Business Insider spoke to 25 nurses, who revealed a nationwide mask shortage was putting their livelihoods - and health - at risk.
  • Many nurses said they won't get paid sick leave if they contract the virus, or that they've had to pay for their own COVID-19 tests.
  • The US is the only developed nation not to guarantee paid leave. More than a quarter of the private sector workforce lacks access to paid sick days, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • The House recently passed an emergency bill that guaranteed paid sick leave for workers impacted by the coronavirus, but the Senate had stalled the legislation as of March 16.
  • If you're a nurse with observations to share during the coronavirus outbreak, email aakhtar@businessinsider.com.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

A 67-year-old nurse in a skilled nursing facility in Tuscon worries about the potentially deadly side effects of contracting the novel coronavirus, which has a higher death rate for older people than any other group.

But the nurse, whose identity Business Insider confirmed before publishing, said her employer hasn't bought N95 masks, which protect workers from coronavirus.Advertisement

The nurse, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job, also said she can't take time off to protect herself because she's a part-time worker without benefits like paid sick leave. Without going into work, she won't have the money to pay her bills.

One nurse practitioner in the Southeast told Business Insider that she already feared she had coronavirus and decided to self-isolate to protect her patients and three-month-old granddaughter. But her employer accused her of overreacting and being "hysterical," and reprimanded her for taking time off.

While the nurse practitioner has PTO she's using to cover her self-isolation, she had to pay $260 to take her own COVID-19 test unless her insurance winds up covering the cost.
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"[My boss] didn't threaten my job, but I think he was more worried about to handle the situation moving forward, because we've been asking for a protocol for weeks and not being given anything in preparation," the NP told Business Insider. "It was an unpleasant phone call and he was not happy."

Many nurses around the country told Business Insider that as the COVID-19 disease spreads, they worry they won't have the money to take unpaid sick leave. Nurses are particularly vulnerable to the virus because they visit patient bedsides more often than other healthcare workers, and many hospitals are experiencing a shortage of protective equipment like masks. Since the US is one of the only industrial countries that does not guarantee paid leave for employees, More than a quarter of the private sector workforce lacks access to paid sick days, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.Advertisement

The House recently passed an emergency bill that guaranteed paid sick leave for workers impacted by the coronavirus, but the Senate had stalled the legislation as of March 16.

nurse coronavirus

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Nurses are on the frontlines of fighting the COVID-19 outbreak, but many say they don't have access to paid sick leave.

Nurses say they fear getting sick because of the nationwide mask shortage, but can't afford to take sick leave.

Business Insider talked to 25 nurses who said their employers - including hospitals and outpatient clinics - don't have enough masks that protect healthcare workers against COVID-19. Many nurses revealed their hospital had little to no planning on how to properly screen a patient who presents symptoms of the virus. Advertisement

Nurses say that because they sit and stand bedside and interact with patients more than other healthcare workers, they are first in line to catch COVID-19 from a patient. In China, where the novel coronavirus originated, more than 3,000 healthcare workers contracted the virus.

"This place that takes care of the elderly, the ones being hit hardest, does not have adequate [personal protective equipment] for its employees to remain healthy and to prevent transmission between residents," the nurse in Tucson said. "We have hand sanitizer, that's as far as it goes."

nurse coronavirus protective equipment hospital

Eric Gaillard/Reuters

A nurse wearing protective gear is seen at Lenval pediatric hospital in Nice, France, March 5, 2020.

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An ICU nurse in New England told Business Insider her hospital's leadership gave nurses mixed messages on when to wear protective masks, which she said puts healthcare workers at risk of contracting the virus. That hospital had not given nurses training or protocol on how to handle the influx of new patients concerned they have COVID-19 as of March 16.

The ICU nurse works per diem and doesn't get paid leave if she gets sick.

"We are frightened, stressed and afraid to go to work," the nurse told Business Insider. "How can we keep our families safe if our employer can't keep us safe?" Advertisement

The US has stalled on passing a bill that would guarantee paid sick leave for COVID-19 patients.

Congress has yet to pass an emergency response bill that would grant sick leave to workers who contract the novel coronavirus.

The House passed a bipartisan bill on Saturday which granted paid sick leave to frontline workers, enhanced unemployment insurance, and allowed for nationwide free testing. But the bill stalled in the Senate as GOP lawmakers seek to make revisions. Some have argued that the bill does not go far enough in granting sick leave to employees of large companies. Dawn Huckelbridge, director of the Paid Leave for All campaign, said she applauded Democrats and Republicans in the House for passing the paid leave bill, but felt "disappointed" that the same bipartisanship did not continue into the Senate.Advertisement

"I think people are starting to understand how important it is," Huckelbridge said of paid leave policy. "It's not a political issue, it's something that impacts every single person's life."

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