Monkeypox Is Leaving Working-Class People In Financial Ruin

With little to no laws guaranteeing workplace sick leave in the US, the lengthy quarantine period can put people who catch monkeypox in a precarious financial position long after their lesions heal.

Things started to look up for Angelo Perry this summer. After months of interviews, he finally landed the job he so badly wanted at a warehouse near his home in Atlanta. On July 12, he began the role, working full time as a forklift operator.

But just a few days later, he woke up with a high fever and chills, his bedsheets drenched in sweat. His condition worsened from there, and soon he had rectal pain so severe he could barely go to the bathroom or even sit down. On July 19, he went to the hospital, where he tested positive for monkeypox.

When Perry informed his supervisor about his condition, nothing seemed to be amiss. But about a week later, in the hotel room where he was quarantined, he tried to log on to his employee portal and discovered he no longer had access to it. That’s how he realized he’d been fired.

Perry's face in profile shows three monkeypox lesions

“I hadn’t heard from them in about a week,” Perry told BuzzFeed News, “So I asked, ‘Hey, do I still have a job when I get out of here?’ And they basically told me that I would have to reapply and hopefully my position would still be open.”

More than 20,000 Americans have been diagnosed with monkeypox, the virus that’s been declared a national public health emergency, during this ongoing outbreak. The CDC has advised those who contract it to isolate for the duration of symptoms, which typically last two to four weeks. But with little to no laws guaranteeing workplace sick leave in the US, this lengthy quarantine period can put people who catch monkeypox in a precarious financial position long after their lesions heal. For some, it’s meant being unable to earn an income and turning to GoFundMe to survive.

The US is one of the only developed countries in which there is no national law guaranteeing paid sick leave — or even unpaid sick leave. Nearly a quarter of private-sector workers — particularly those in the service industry, construction, and other low-wage industries — don’t get paid sick leave. The vast majority of jobs in the US are considered “at-will,” meaning employers can legally fire staff for pretty much any reason at any time.

Perry is now recovered and has since reapplied to his old job. So far, he hasn’t heard back. For now, he’s set up a GoFundMe to try to make ends meet until he can figure out what’s next. His unceremonious dismissal may sound harsh, but Perry is certainly not the first American to lose a job this way.

“It’s been really hard [having monkeypox], but it’s going to be even harder if I don’t get this job back and have to look for another job all over again,” Perry said. “I’m glad that I’m getting well, but at the same time, when I get out of here, I have a shit load of payments to get back on track.”

Zion Mackey, 23, had only just recovered from monkeypox when he began doing Instacart and UberEats deliveries. Though his symptoms had fully resolved, after which health officials say patients can safely stop quarantining, the restaurant where he worked as a server required written notice that he’d tested negative before returning. But the hospital that he’d initially tested at wouldn’t test him again, and instead referred him to a county epidemiologist, who Mackey couldn’t get an appointment with until weeks later. At that point, he would be long since recovered, and over a month without a paycheck. With bills piling up from his weeks without work, he instead found a new job in a different restaurant and has been supplementing his lost income with delivery work, odd jobs, and a GoFundMe.

“I have rent money due in six or seven days, I have a car that I have to pay insurance on, [and] I have bills I have to pay — I’m probably about to be about $3,000 in the hole,” Mackey said. “If I’m being transparent, I only have like $67 to my name at the moment.”

Realizing they needed to turn to GoFundMe left Perry and Mackey, neither of whom have health insurance, with a sense of shame. “Everyone knows I’m not the type of person to ask for help,” Mackey said.

“It was embarrassing at first,” Perry said, “but I do believe that there are people with a good heart.”

Whether a person has the legal right to sick leave largely depends on their individual circumstances. A small handful of states and cities have passed their own laws on the issue. On the federal level, some workers may have the right to take time off — unpaid — due to illness under the Family and Medical Leave Act, but depending on the size of the company and their length of service, they might not be eligible.

“[Since] we don’t have universal sick leave in the United States … people are left to their corporate policies,” Steven Thrasher, a journalism and public health professor at Northwestern University and author of The Viral Underclass, told BuzzFeed News.

Putting the power in employers’ hands means that whether a worker can take time off when they’re sick, and whether they’re paid during that period, can vary drastically — and marginalized people are often the ones in the toughest situations, as the COVID-19 pandemic has already established. It’s no coincidence that Black and Latino people — who are less likely to have access to paid sick leave, and more likely to be essential workers who cannot work remotely — are about twice as likely to be hospitalized and die of COVID-19 than white people.

These racial discrepancies are similarly reflected in the data when it comes to monkeypox. Black and Latino individuals each account for about a third of monkeypox cases in the US, CDC data shows, despite only 14% of all Americans being Black and 19% being Latino. More than 40% of monkeypox vaccines that have been administered so far have gone to white people; only about 10% went to Black people, and less than a quarter went to Latino people.

There are many reasons why these vaccine disparities exist, but certainly one of the biggest is the difficulty in accessing one. Appointments are extremely hard to come by, typically getting snapped up online within minutes, and people often have to wait in line for hours for walk-in slots. But this process is all the more challenging, or downright impossible, if you’re an hourly worker, can’t work from home, or can’t take time off during the day.

“If you’re the kind of person who has a job … where you’re at the computer, you can hit refresh, refresh, refresh, refresh, so you can get an appointment. And then if you’re told there’s a vaccine appointment even miles away at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, you can just schedule your day around that,” Thrasher said. But if your job doesn’t allow for this flexibility, or you don’t have a car or childcare or reliable internet access, getting vaccinated might not be easy.

To make matters more challenging, there’s the stigma that comes with monkeypox. Though anyone can contract monkeypox, the vast majority of people currently getting it are men who have sex with men, with transmission mostly occurring due to sexual contact. Informing your employer you need time off to recover from monkeypox could essentially mean outing yourself.

Seeing these identity-based disparities seep into yet another health crisis has left some experts wondering: Have we learned nothing from COVID-19?

“When the nation was facing 10,000 covid cases… we were putting in place federal paid leave for people who needed to isolate and quarantine,” said Theresa Chapple, a Chicago-area epidemiologist. “I see no conversations about that right now when it comes to monkeypox. I think we really need to be restarting those conversations at the national level — though knowing that the real conversation we need to have is about universal paid leave.”

But that can seem like a long shot if you consider the existing American social norms surrounding work and health. Even for those who are permitted to take sick time, many remote employees report feeling more pressure to clock in when ill than they did before the pandemic. It’s a cultural convention that goes all the way to the top — when President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive for COVID-19, both publicly emphasized that they were continuing to work while isolating.

“I think the one thing that we decided to take away from COVID is that people should work while they’re sick,” Chapple said. “When instead the lesson should’ve been around what support systems, what mechanisms, we need to have in place so people can recover from illness in this country.

“I think we’ve decided that it’s the economy over health, capitalism over health,” she said. “It’s not just will you get sick — it’s will you get sick and can you continue to work through it?”

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