An account by Scott Nappalos about calling in sick.
1 a.m… 3:50... 3:55... 4 a.m. I rise from bed bleary-eyed. Standing makes me cough. “Great a new symptom,” I think to myself. Walking to the bathroom, the day before me goes through my head. Pacing down the halls, lifting patients, comforting families, dealing with managers; the flood of images makes me weary. I remember days I worked while sick, greeting a patient while gently trying to hold the snot from running down my face, ducking out of a room to sneeze, sitting heavy on the toilet to let my body rest. You read lab values through a tired haze and hide hot tea with honey on the computer carts to make your voice less monstrous. Working sick assails you. I can imagine my day, and it isn’t pretty.
Clear mucous runs across my lip.
“What about my co-workers? Will enough people be there? Will they have miserable days because I’m awake at 4 a.m. with a cold?”
The night before I had waffled about whether to call in or not. The consequences of calling out stick with you.
“What happened? You been out drinking?”
“Remember call out three times in six months and it’s a write-up.”
At other hospitals I worked in you would be yelled at, disciplined, suspended, or even fired for calling in sick. The bosses made it very clear that being sick was a transgression. When you worked shortstaffed from others calling in, you felt it too.
Working short-staffed with no sympathy from anyone, we were alone with our curses too often.
“I bet he called out because he’s drunk.”
“She’s always calling out, especially on the weekends.”
Nurses frequently would blame each other for our misery, shortstaffed from someone falling ill. The worse it got at work, the more call-outs there are. Even an anarchist like myself internalized this. I felt guilty for being sick, and it seemed like I was imposing the extra work on my tired co-workers.
The problem is that illness is part of the game. Health care workers are exposed to more illness, and experience extreme working conditions and the long-term stress that wears down the immune system. The results are predictable. People will get sick. In many hospitals, however, sick time was eliminated and replaced with general comp time, a.k.a. rolling sick days and vacation into one category that constantly pushes people to work while sick. The real issue is that management can see the numbers and knows how many people will be sick yearly, and yet refuses to hire enough people to take that pressure off us to work with a bug.
This is in spite of the fact that countless studies show health care workers spreading potentially fatal illnesses to patients in hospitals. It’s not complicated if you think about it. Many viruses are spread by droplets in our breath or our body secretions. Well-meaning health care workers have a hard time avoiding coughing, sneezing, blowing their noses, or rubbing something they shouldn’t rub when under the gun. You wash your hands constantly, but all it takes is one little slip to spread things to patients. Illnesses spread by health care workers remains a significant cause of serious illness and death in hospitals and care facilities.
The problem runs deeper than just money or punishments. Working at a place with paid sick days and lacking a culture of punishing those who call in sick, many of us still blame ourselves for the situation at work. Today we are repressed more by our own internalization of power than by force. That is what we have to fight against. The problem isn’t in us as individuals, or the fact that life makes us sick sometimes. The problem is a system constantly pressuring all hospitals to meet its challenges with our bodies and those of our patients. Work runs like clockwork, but it is a machine built out of human bodies; bodies that are vulnerable. An answer isn’t completely obvious, but any solution we will find will be collective; working together to use our power for something more human.
At 4:05 a.m., I called in sick.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)