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Too many in Korea can’t afford to get sick

Evening commuters cross a road in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on a February day. (Yonhap)
Evening commuters cross a road in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on a February day. (Yonhap)

South Korean workplaces have little sympathy for workers when they get sick. But “toughing it out” constitutes a public health hazard during a pandemic, experts say.

Workplaces have emerged as one of the most common settings for coronavirus outbreaks in Korea. According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency’s January data, 18 percent of all locally transmitted cases diagnosed that month were workplace-related, up 7 percent from the month prior.

‘Empty mantra’

It’s been a year since the Health and Welfare Ministry’s “stay home when sick” campaign kicked off, with the aim of preventing workplace contagion. But the ministry’s campaign does not seem to be gaining traction even among its own personnel, according to officials there.

Then-Vice Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters in May that for him, one of the hardest pieces of COVID-19 advice to follow was staying away from work when he needed to.

“Personally I found it hard getting used to the concept because all my life I was trained to believe not calling in sick was a sign of a strong work ethic,” Kim said at the time.

A deputy director at the ministry who wished to remain anonymous said there had been several instances over the year when she had been forced to show up at work despite being sick -- once with coronavirus-like symptoms.

“I knew it couldn’t be COVID-19 since I was strictly social distancing, and I came to work nonetheless,” she said. After all, staying home from work when feeling ill was merely “highly recommended,” and not binding.

“We’re already short-staffed as is. Each of us have been working literally 70 to 100 hours overtime a month since COVID-19 hit. One person less on the team translates to that much burden for the rest. So it’s hard to not continue working while sick,” she said.

She also said she felt like she was “being guilt-tripped into staying healthy” after a formal notice to all civil servants in November said that they would be held accountable if they were “found not heeding precautions and caught COVID-19.”

Many of her co-workers found the warning to be demoralizing, she said. “It makes it all the harder for someone to report they might be sick.”

Another deputy director with the ministry said “not being sick as much as possible” was seen as a virtue when there was so much to get done each day. “To be honest the ‘stay home when sick’ campaign feels like an empty mantra,” he said.

This rings true for Korean workers across sectors. Showing up to work even when you’re unwell has been “something of a given” for Shin Hae-young, a Korean literature teacher at a high school in Nowon, northern Seoul.

She said that throughout her 11 years as a teacher, she has never once taken a sick day. “For many teachers, working while sick has been hitherto normal.”

But with the ongoing pandemic, this workplace practice had to be altered amid concerns that schools might be more susceptible to outbreaks.

At least a couple of faculty members have been forced to stay home when they had fevers, she said, adding there is a “newfound paranoia” among the school staff that they might be sick.

“My colleagues and I are extremely cautious about where we go and whom we meet and doing everything we can to not get sick because the last thing we want is to find out that we gave children the disease,” she said.

Still, she feels that taking a random day off would be frowned upon.

“If I take leave even for just a day there are problems of having a co-worker substitute for me, arranging a make-up class, among other things,” she said.

Real change still far off

Experts say that to turn the situation around, it’s going to take more than just a campaign.

“It all comes down to inadequate staffing,” said health and social policy researcher Chung Haejoo.

“Staffing adequately means hiring enough people so that some of them can take a leave of absence without the rest being stretched too thin. But oftentimes the possibility that some might have to go on a leave from illness or other life-course events such as pregnancy is not factored in at workplaces.”

She said a lack of sufficient staffing turns workers against one another and creates a hostile atmosphere for taking time off as one person’s absence means a heavier workload for the others.

She added that Korea was one of only about seven countries in the world that does not have work accident and sickness benefits. “We do have universal health care, but it would mean little for a worker who can’t be off on sick leave without losing pay or a job in the first place,” she said.

Going to work while sick is more common among people with less secure jobs, according to sociology professor Shin Jin-wook of Chung-Ang University.

Citing Social Science Korea’s October data, he said about 15 percent of people who have fixed employment said they’ve gone to work sick, while 25 percent of people with part-time jobs said the same.

“An overwhelming majority of them said the main reason for having worked when they were sick was income loss,” he said.

Some of the larger outbreaks in Korea have involved vulnerable workplaces such as warehouses of large e-commerce companies and call centers, where most work contract jobs.

“These workers are paid on an hourly basis, so missing work inevitably leads to reduced pay. Also, their labor is easily replaceable. For them, sick time can be a detrimental blow,” he said.

Shin said this was one reason that some people might fear a COVID-19 diagnosis.

“The key question with sick leave, paid or not, is whether you can keep the job afterwards,” he said. “Coming down with COVID-19 is not just associated with deteriorating health -- it’s a financial death sentence.”

Shin added that given the magnitude of the threat facing gig workers, freelancers and others in unstable employment situations, worker protection seemed too far down in the administration’s policy hierarchy.

“The countries that have done poorly in terms of pandemic control have all outperformed Korea when it comes to providing paid sick leave to workers,” he said, referring to data released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in May, which showed that Korea ranked last for paid sick leave availability.

Although the administration has announced a plan to guarantee sick pay, it won’t be in place for another two years at least -- “by which time the pandemic would have already devastated the country’s vulnerable workforce,” Shin said. “Change is not coming fast enough.”

Korea University labor law professor Park Ji-soon said, “At the end of the day, the government has to be the one to protect sick leave in public health crises such as COVID-19, rather than leaving it up to workers and their employers.”

Currently, Korean law does not guarantee sick leave, much less paid sick leave, during infectious disease outbreaks, he pointed out. “Sickness benefits should be institutionalized under infectious disease control and prevention laws, as other countries like Germany are doing.”

Besides, in an epidemic, adopting a flexible use of sick leave is arguably more cost effective. “The costs are much greater if several staffers have to isolate after someone has been sick but wasn’t able to take a day off and get checked,” Park said.

Dr. Lee Jong-koo, onetime director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said: “I think by now everyone understands that staying away from others when we are sick is not just about us. It’s about limiting exposure to others for whom the infection can be deadly.

“But the means to protect ourselves as well as those around us are not an affordable to all. Hopefully paid sick leave -- the right to rest -- will be a legacy from this pandemic.”

By Kim Arin (
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Korea Herald daum