This got me thinking about the times I’ve bucked medical advice, chugged Day-Quil, and gone in sick anyway. Like millions of hourly workers, I don’t have compensated sick days; if I don’t clock in, I don’t get paid. And believe me, I’ve tried foregoing rent and groceries, with little success. Unless I’m too impaired to move, I have no choice but to ignore my illness and work. Same holds, sadly, for most nurses, fry cooks, and other low-paid workers in highly transmissible fields.
During my factory days, one of only two times I got a stern talking-to about my work ethic involved attendance. I breathed a lungful of dust off some chemically treated paper, and spent a week flat on my back. My supervisor called me into a conference room and informed me that, notwithstanding my doctor’s note from the company clinic, I had missed what they considered a substantial amount of time, and was now officially on warning.
(My other stern talking-to involved getting angry at my supervisor, throwing down my safety gloves, and walking out. That’s a discussion for another time.)
My supervisor warned me that, even beyond the pinch I’d enforced on my company, I had imposed upon my fellow line workers, who needed to offset my absence. Clearly, this warning conveyed, I had a moral obligation to ignore the signals my body told me, and come to work. This was only one among many times when the messages I got from family, school, employment, and others, told me that work was more urgent than protecting my bodily health.
Clearly Rachel got the same message, because she even lied to Sarah about how contagious she was. Even while continuing to sneeze on Sarah and other coworkers, Rachel insisted she was past the contagious stage. At this writing, Sarah has been housebound for a week, hooked to her nebulizer and struggling to feed herself. All because Rachel felt the social cue to not spread her cold mattered less than the moral imperative to keep working.
I cannot separate this morality from the capitalist ethic. Like me, you’ve probably spent your life bombarded by messages that work makes us happy, productive, and well-socialized members of society. Conversely, staying home, even when wracked with wet phlegmy coughs, makes us weak, lazy, and otherwise morally diminished. Our bodies aren’t something to respect and listen to; they’re impediments that need silenced so we can become happy contributors to the economy.
(As an aside, Sarah has already written about this experience. She and I discussed this experience, and tested ideas on one another; while she and I don’t say exactly the same thing, there are significant overlaps. My take is slightly less first-person.)
But who benefits when we power through and work sick? I certainly don’t; I feel miserable and sluggish, and also feel guilty for my inability to produce at accustomed levels. My employer doesn’t benefit, because he must pay standard wages for diminished outcomes—indeed, as I can’t rest and recuperate, he must pay more for my illness than if he offered paid sick time. And considering I must pay higher deductibles for off-hours doctor visits, my illness imposes on everyone.
In short, by making my continued attendance morally mandatory, I diminish everyone’s outcomes. Plus I infect everyone around me, including people who, like Sarah, can’t shrug off a cold. But I keep working, so hey, I benefit the capitalist class, right? So I accept the requirement to work, while socializing the risk, and my employer privatizes the outcomes. This offers a distorted morality that literally prioritizes money over individual and public health.
Perhaps you think I’m overstating things, that we don’t really value economic outcomes over health. If so, try telling your employer that hourly workers deserve compensation so they can avoid infecting one another without missing rent. See how your boss reacts with moral outrage. More importantly, see how you feel the gut-clench of wracking guilt before you even speak. That’s the capitalist ethic trying to silence you. Because we’ve made common colds literally immoral.
Also on capitalist morality:
Capitalism, Religion, and the Spoken Word