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For Remote Workers, the Sick Day Is Over

It’s been said that remote schooling effectively killed the snow day. For Americans working from home, the latest coronavirus variant has meant the end of the sick day.

Omicron has stricken millions and left businesses unable to operate fully as sickened or exposed workers isolate at home. For those already working from home, though, the variant’s milder symptoms and changing standards about what severity of illness merits a sick day mean that many Covid-infected workers are powering through, muting themselves on Zoom to cough, sneeze or blow their noses as they muddle through the day.

Before Covid, calling in sick was as much about preventing the spread of germs to office mates as it was about taking time to get well. And even through much of the pandemic, a positive Covid-19 test practically ensured that a person would take sick leave to recover. Widespread Omicron infections, on the other hand, have plenty of workers resolving not to call in sick from remote work.

When Ryan Segovia of Queen Creek, Ariz., caught Covid in October, he took his company’s two-week sick leave and lay on the couch falling in and out of sleep for days as he suffered debilitating symptoms. Earlier this month, when the 29-year-old mortgage underwriter got a headache and felt his throat getting scratchy in the wake of a New Year’s Eve gathering, he let his boss know he was under the weather but would be working.

“Scratchy throat is still lingering to this day,” he said.

Even though some of the people he had socialized with tested positive for Covid, he ended up testing negative.

A number of factors are driving remote employees to work through their illnesses. Some say their companies are asking them to continue working if they’re able. Others say taking sick days will put them behind on assignments or burden colleagues. Some say they don’t feel bad enough to stop working and prefer not to sit around the house with nothing to do.

Garret Pierce, a 33-year-old software sales executive in Provo, Utah, says he has to hit monthly goals, making it tough to take any kind of time off. He tested positive for Covid on Jan. 3 and kept working while home.

“I could have taken the time off and my manager would not have even batted an eye,” he said. “But it’s just like, if I can work, I’ll work.”

Mr. Pierce said he had a fever and bad headache, followed by congestion, a sore throat and fatigue. He described it as manageable, but acknowledged struggling a bit through his work days. He didn’t miss any meetings or sales calls.

“My job does rely on me talking to people all day,” he said.

Americans are notorious for not taking time off. Pre-pandemic, US workers left roughly a quarter of their annual paid time off on the table, according to US Travel Association research. A 2021 survey of 405 employers found that 51% of them provide salaried workers with an average of eight sick days each year that are separate from vacation and other paid time off, according to Mercer LLC, the consulting firm that conducted the research. Workers took an average of four sick days a year.

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Companies have addressed Covid-related absences in a variety of ways, with some offering special paid leaves to prevent workers from having to exhaust their sick days during lengthy quarantines or to allow time off for caregiving. Now, with vaccination rates rising and recommended quarantine periods shrinking, some employers are beginning to trim Covid-related leaves offered earlier in the pandemic, said Rich Fuerstenberg, a senior partner with Mercer.

While many large employers expanded their paid sick-time and leave offerings during the pandemic, many more low-wage, part-time and hourly workers, as well as those employed by small businesses, lack paid sick time or cannot do their jobs from home . In March of 2021, 77% of private-sector workers had access to sick days—but there are disparities based on income levels, federal statistics show. Among the highest 10% of US earners in the private sector, 95% of employees had paid sick time off, while 33% of the lowest-earning 10% of employees had access to paid sick time.

Working from home with mild symptoms won’t affect the time it takes for an individual to recover from Covid, but rest is still advised, said Dr. Frederick Davis, associate chair of emergency medicine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

“Getting out of bed, having purpose to their daily lives, helps with recovery” for some people, said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public-health professor at George Washington University.

To be sure, Dr. Wen adds, not everyone is able to tough it out in the home office: “Listen to your body. If you’re exhausted, you shouldn’t have to get up and answer emails when your body is saying that you need to sleep.”

Checking out from work feels hard, some employees said, when there are heavy workloads, obligations to clients and co-workers or a corporate culture that rewards showing up sick with a badge of honor. Before Covid, some of these workers might have received pressure to stay home from sick-shaming colleagues concerned about contagion. Remote work wipes out that concern.

Austin Beaulieu, a 24-year-old full-time substitute high-school teacher who lives in Trenton, NJ, decided not to use his sick days and instead worked from home when his school switched to remote learning last week. Mr. Beaulieu, who suspects he caught Covid at a New Year’s Eve event, said he feared a teacher shortage would make it too difficult to find a replacement for him. He told students he had Covid, and warned them he was tired and might have to go off-screen to blow his nose.

“By the end of the day, I was almost falling asleep on camera,” he said.

As the Omicron surge continues, managers are getting the signal that a positive test doesn’t necessarily mean an employee will disappear for days.

Alice Bindel, a 37-year-old sales account executive who lives in Cincinnati, said she considered taking her company’s Covid leave after she, her husband and their two toddlers recently came down with the virus. With quarantines for all, the couple would have to monitor the children while working from home.

Ms. Bindel’s husband took five days off without pay, which allowed her to keep working. She said her company was accommodating but she stayed online.

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“I felt like my symptoms were mild enough that I could work here and there,” she said.

Lissa Surgeoner, a 39-year-old recruiter who places attorneys at New York City law firms, said she didn’t feel pressure from her manager to work during her quarantine after she tested positive for Covid on New Year’s Eve. Isolated in a bedroom of her Rochester, NY, home for 10 days while her husband worked and cared for the couple’s 2- and 5-year-old children and puppy, she opted to work with periodic breaks to rest when symptoms like dizziness kicked in .

Ms. Surgeoner, who is partially compensated through commissions, said she doesn’t want to fall behind in a competitive hiring environment.

Plus, she had little else to do. “I was sitting up here anyway,” she said.

Write to Ray A. Smith at ray.smith@wsj.com and Kathryn Dill at Kathryn.Dill@wsj.com

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