I am writing this on my flight home from a business trip. The man who boarded ahead of me has a thick, hacking cough. He insisted, “I don’t have what everyone thinks I have. It’s just a cold.” I didn’t ask how he could be certain.
I sat in an exit row seat—the one with extra legroom. He sat a row ahead of me on the other side of the aisle. No one sat in his row, nor did anyone else sit in mine. No one needed to—it’s a Southwest flight, and it is only 2/3 full, so there is plenty of space.
As people filed by, many gave him dirty looks. Others mocked him, some criticized him. One man complained to the flight attendant, “Now my exit row seat is ruined.” I heard someone mutter, “Irresponsible.”
Maybe it is. I know I’ve flown while sick before. “I have to get home,” I thought, and considered it a necessity. I never really thought about whether that was a responsible thing to do. If I were sick right now, would I have declined to fly, or would I have decided that my need to be home outweighed the risk to others? I have to admit that I likely would have done the latter.
I do think it was irresponsible of him to take an exit row seat, no matter how willing he may be to assist in an emergency. But his choice doesn’t justify the way people treated him. Fear is understandable. Cruelty is indefensible.
All the COVID-19 news has made me think about an incident from when I was a clerk at Waldenbooks in the early 1990s.
One morning, I woke up with a scratchy throat, severely congested sinuses, and a fever. I was scheduled to work an eight hour closing shift that day, but recognized that I needed to stay home and stay in bed. I called my manager and told her I was sick and wanted to use a sick day.
“If you don’t want the hours, find someone else to work them for you,” she said.
I tried to explain that it wasn’t a function of not wanting the hours. I was sick. The only time I stopped coughing was to sneeze. It was better for everyone if I didn’t come in. But she insisted that if I didn’t want my shift, I’d have to call around to our store’s part timers to see if any of them could fill in. Otherwise, she expected me to show up at one o’clock. And if she couldn’t rely on me, next week she would cut my hours and let someone else have them.
I couldn’t find anyone to take my shift, and I damned sure couldn’t afford to have my hours cut the next week. I was barely making ends meet in those days. So I went in. I worked a full shift and closed the store. The next day, still sick, I worked my scheduled opening shift. The next week, three of my coworkers were sick. And I can only imagine how many customers I infected.
So all the advice from people saying that if you feel even the littlest bit sick, stay home? That’s great in theory. But for too many low-wage workers, it isn’t an option. If you’re barely making ends meet, you work sick. You need the money. You need the job.