When America’s supermarket cashiers, meatpacking workers and airline employees were deemed “essential workers” soon after the pandemic hit, these often-overlooked workers, in ways, felt more appreciated than ever before. But as businesses ordered these front-line employees to report to work despite the risks of contracting Covid-19, many felt they were being treated more like expendable workers than essential ones.
And in many cases, they were right. Far too often, their employers didn’t have enough personal protective equipment to safeguard their health. Far too often, retailers ignored their workers’ pleas and allowed maskless shoppers in, even though that jeopardized the health of these “essential” employees. Far too often, employers failed to provide paid sick days to workers who were ill with Covid or were required to quarantine because they had been exposed to the virus.
The CDC’s new guidance encourages co-workers who may still be infectious to return to work and run the risk of spreading the virus throughout their workplaces.
This past week, many essential workers have again felt that they are being treated as expendable after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines that shortened the isolation period for people with Covid-19 from 10 days to five — a move many workers saw as a concession to business and a danger to workers.
Weighing in on the matter, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, defended the guidelines, telling "NBC Nightly News," "On balance, if you look at the safety of the public and the need to have society not disrupted, this was a good choice."
Days before this change, the CDC had recommended that health care workers who tested positive could return to work after seven days of isolation (down from the original 10 days) and after negative Covid tests. But the agency added that “isolation time can be cut further if there are staffing shortages."
So, we’ve gone from 10 days to seven to five.
The reduced isolation is on the condition that employees are asymptomatic after five days. But with scientists saying some Covid victims remain infectious at that five-day mark, the CDC’s new guidance encourages co-workers who may still be infectious to return to work and run the risk of spreading the virus throughout their workplaces.
Moreover, in a nation where millions of people — showing contempt for public health and the public good — have ignored repeated pleas to wear masks and get vaccinated, many workers will no doubt fear that co-workers returning from isolation will ignore the CDC’s guidance that they wear masks for five more days after isolation. Considering that the new guidance doesn’t require employees to have negative Covid tests before leaving isolation and returning to work, it could be a recipe for serious trouble.
While health experts continue to learn new things about Covid-19 and change recommendations accordingly, it’s nonetheless easy to see why many people are questioning the motives behind the CDC’s new guidance. After all, it came as the explosion of cases of the omicron variant caused staffing shortages that squeezed hospitals, airlines and many other employers nationwide.
Indeed, over the past week, more than 1,000 flights have been canceled most days across the U.S. To help businesses cope with staffing shortages, corporations like Delta Airlines, in an open letter to the CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, urged the federal government to reduce the isolation period for people with Covid.
After receiving such pleas, the CDC revamped its guidelines. Walensky told NPR that the agency had updated its guidelines because of science but also partly to “keep the critical functions of society open and operating.” She said people who contract Covid are by far the most infectious during their first five days with the disease.
It may encourage employers to strong-arm employees who have Covid to return to work after five days even if they still have symptoms.
Numerous medical experts have criticized the new guidance, saying it’s not careful or strict enough. Many workers and labor leaders have quickly echoed that view, fearing that the CDC’s guidance will lead to more illness among workers, essential or otherwise.
The New York State Nurses Association asserted in a statement that the CDC’s guidance would exacerbate worker shortages instead of lessen them. “This guidance is only going to worsen the shortage and put our patients at risk,” said Pat Kane, the association’s executive director. “Our health care workers deserve better, and our patients deserve better.” The statement also faulted the CDC for not requiring that health care workers be provided with N95 masks and home testing kits.
Essential workers have another understandable concern about the CDC’s new stance: It may encourage employers to strong-arm employees who have Covid to return to work after five days even if they still have symptoms. In a tweet, Dr. Tara C. Smith, an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at Kent State University, said: “Employers, already having workplaces that are understaffed, will pressure/force workers to come back in at day 5. I also worry they’ll ignore the ‘asymptomatic’ part and require even those who have been ill to come back in. Who’s protecting the employees?”
While many have some understandable worries about the CDC’s new guidance, it does include one significant advantage for one group of workers: those who don’t get paid sick days and are ordered to be isolated for 10 days. Before the pandemic, a study from The Shift Project found that 55 percent of retail, grocery and food-service workers reported they lack access to paid sick days.
For those workers, 10 days of lost pay can hurt badly, and cutting their isolation period in half will mean less of a hit to their wallets. But even with that modest silver lining, the CDC’s new isolation guidance has too many shortcomings, including its failure to require that workers in isolation test negative before returning to work.
The result is that once again our nation’s “essential” workers have been made to feel that they’re disposable — and not indispensable.