Steve August 3, 2020
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The full version of this article was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C.

Lucie Joseph started to feel sick on April 28 as she rang up customers at a Shell gas station in Delray Beach, Florida.

Joseph said her boss wouldn’t give her time off without a doctor’s note. But the owner of the gas station, Sun Gas Marketing and Petroleum, didn’t offer her health insurance, so she didn’t go to the doctor. Joseph, a single mother with a 10-year-old son, kept working — seven more shifts over 10 days.

Joseph’s symptoms worsened, so she decided to get tested for COVID-19. On May 9, Joseph learned she had tested positive, and a nurse told her to quarantine. Over the next six weeks, Joseph tested positive twice more and texted the results to a manager. As instructed, she didn’t return to work until she had two consecutive negative tests. On June 15, however, she was fired.

“I was stunned,” said Joseph, who showed the Center for Public Integrity images of the text messages with her employer and a document indicating she’d tested positive for COVID-19.

Joseph, who earned $13 an hour, didn’t realize she had a legal right to job protection.

Lucie Joseph with her 7-year-old son. Joseph said she was fired at a gas station in South Florida when she took time off to recover from COVID-19.Courtesy Lucie Joseph

Two months before she was fired, President Tweety McTreason signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires certain small and medium-sized businesses to pay a worker’s full salary for two weeks if they become infected with COVID-19 and prohibits businesses from firing employees for taking leave.

But Joseph, who was eventually paid two weeks’ wages, didn’t know about the law until she consulted a lawyer. Many other workers are equally uninformed.

Sun Gas owner Richard Vogel did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, hundreds of U.S. businesses have been cited for illegally denying paid leave to workers during the pandemic, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. As of June 12, nearly 700 companies had violated the law’s paid-leave provisions and owed back wages to hundreds of employees, according to Labor Department records. Violators include six McDonald’s franchises and the franchise owners of a Comfort Suites, Courtyard by Marriott and Red Roof Inn.

In all, the businesses owe $690,000 in unpaid wages to 527 employees, who are not identified in the documents. Most of the workers are low-wage earners in the construction, hotel and food industries. It’s likely many more companies have broken the law because workers such as Joseph aren’t aware of their rights and therefore haven’t filed complaints.

“Workers with low wages are most in need of paid leave,” said Tanya Goldman, a former Labor Department policy adviser who’s now an attorney at the nonprofit Center for Law and Social Policy. “They literally cannot afford to stay home and take a sick day if they get COVID.”

Red Roof Inn’s corporate office said it was trying to track down the employee involved but didn’t give further comment. A spokesperson for Choice Hotels, which owns the Comfort Suites brand, said the hotel is owned by a franchisee and did not comment on the violation.

Eileen Arslan, comptroller for the Courtyard by Marriott in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, which was cited for a violation, said hotel staff members were confused at first about who was covered under the new law. As soon as they heard from the Labor Department, they paid the employee the wages owed, Arslan said.

Congress is considering another stimulus bill that would extend paid sick days to workers not covered under the current law, such as health care workers, first responders and employees at companies with more than 500 workers. Establishments with fewer than 50 workers are exempt if they show paid leave would seriously hurt their businesses.

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But the bill is tied up in the Senate as Republicans and Democrats fight about how much aid to give workers.

‘I need to eat’

About a third of U.S. workers don’t receive paid time off from their employers. Most of them work in low-wage jobs. Others, such as Joseph, get only one or two days of paid time off a year. Others get a bit more, such as Angely Rodriguez Lambert.

Angely Rodriguez Lambert with her grandmother and aunt at their home in Oakland, California.Courtesy Angely Rodriguez Lambert

Rodriguez, who works as a cashier at a McDonald’s restaurant in Oakland, California, gets up to five sick days a year under state law. But that wasn’t enough to pay her bills while she recovered from COVID-19.

Rodriguez was one of 11 employees at the McDonald’s in the East Bay neighborhood of Temescal who tested positive for the coronavirus in late May. Forced to quarantine, Rodriguez asked if she could get paid while she recovered at home. Probably not, her boss said, adding that she would check with her supervisor. Rodriguez said she never got a response.

Rodriguez, who earns $14.14 an hour, didn’t realize she had the right to get paid for two weeks during quarantine.

“Imagine living here without any money,” Rodriguez said in Spanish. “I can’t stay in my home if I don’t pay the rent, and I need to eat and send money to my family.”

Rodriguez and five co-workers are suing the franchise owner, VES McDonald’s, for allegedly breaking local labor laws, including a temporary Oakland ordinance that requires employers to give workers two paid weeks off if they get sick during the pandemic.

Rodriguez said she eventually was paid for 60 hours but is owed another 20. The company said it eventually paid all workers in mid-June who asked for leave, according to court records.

Rodriguez’s employer, McDonald’s franchise owner Valerie Smith, did not respond to a request for comment. In court documents, her lawyers said the franchise has complied with the law.

A spokesperson for McDonald’s Corp. said the company asks employees who are sick to stay home.

“We’re confident the vast majority of restaurant employees impacted by COVID-19 are getting paid sick leave through existing franchisee and corporate policies, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, CARES Act and state and local regulations, and McDonald’s USA requires its franchisees to comply with all applicable laws and regulations,” the spokesperson wrote.

Angely Rodriguez Lambert, center, strikes with her co-workers at a McDonald’s restaurant in Oakland, California. The group was demanding two weeks of paid quarantine for sick workers and personal protective equipment for those who continued on the job.Courtesy Fight for $15

Rodriguez and Joseph are the types of workers the Families First law was supposed to help: low-income earners who aren’t paid if they are sick or don’t get enough paid leave to quarantine for at least two weeks.

The law also guarantees working parents 10 weeks off at two-thirds pay if a worker’s child care provider closes because of the pandemic. Employers get a tax credit to cover the cost.

Data from the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, which enforces the paid-leave law, shows that businesses with a large number of low-wage workers are breaking the law more often than others.

Most of the violators are construction and renovation companies, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and manufacturers.

The U.S. Postal Service has the most violations: 57. It owes workers nearly $100,000, Labor Department records show.

Sandra Capkovic, who delivers mail in the Tampa, Florida, area, said a supervisor denied her request for 10 weeks of paid leave to take care of her 7-year-old son, whose babysitters have been unavailable during the pandemic. Capkovic said her supervisor told her the paid-leave law covers only parents whose children’s schools and day care facilities are closed, and she would have to use the 10 days of annual leave she had accumulated.

The Families First law covers working parents whose “child care provider” is unavailable, but doesn’t specify whether that includes babysitters.

Capkovic said she didn’t file a formal complaint because she didn’t know if her supervisor had violated the law.

A spokesperson for the postal service said the agency began educating employees about their rights as soon as the law was signed by the president.

“Significantly, the number of violations cited (57) is a very small fraction of the Postal Service workforce, which is comprised of more than 630,000 employees,” she wrote.

Two former Labor Department officials said the 692 paid-leave records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity likely reflect only a fraction of employers who are breaking the law.

“It’s very challenging for an employee, in a time of increasingly high unemployment and instability in the labor market, to have the courage to make a complaint,” said Michael Hancock, an employment lawyer and an assistant administrator for policy in the Wage and Hour Division during the Obama administration.

Joseph, meanwhile, is now receiving unemployment pay and looking for work. She’s preparing to sue Sun Gas, claiming it broke the paid-leave law.

“Bosses need to know that we’re human, that we have a family too,” she said.

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The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

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