Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Second Friday of the month (third Friday in five-week months) at 6:45 am, 8:45 am and 5:44 pm. Why's That? explores the things in Southwest Michigan – people, places, names – that spark your curiosity. We want to know what makes you wonder when you're out and about.

Why's That: Why don't hourly workers at Bronson Hospital get more sick leave?

Along Westnedge Ave. a green and white yard sign is posted on a strip of green grass by the sidewalk.  Written on the sign in white letters are the words, "Thank You! #Healthcare Heroes."  The "o" in you is a red heart outlined in white.  The sign was posted on May 6, 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sehvilla Mann
Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, March 17, 2023.

Bronson says it encourages employees to stay home when they are sick. But hourly workers say they can face disciplinary action for taking more than five sick days in a year.

This edition of "Why's That?" is a bit longer than most, so it will air at approximately 5:20 pm on March 17, rather than 5:44.

You probably remember this kind of messaging from early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two kids in capes shout “thank you Bronson superheroes,” in a video compiled by Kalamazoo’s Bronson Methodist Hospital, one of two major health care systems serving the city.

Three years on, those thanks seem hollow to some Bronson hourly employees who said they’re not getting enough paid sick leave.

“We don't want to be heroes; we just want to be fairly compensated," one told WMUK. We're not using their name or gender because they’re worried they could lose their job for speaking to the media. The employee asked “Why’s That?”:

“After all the lessons that Bronson has learned through the pandemic, why do we continue to limit the amount of sick time our employees get?”

But the hospital disagrees that employees don’t have enough paid sick time. More about that soon. First, we explain what changed during the pandemic when the federal government ordered most employers to give employees paid time off for COVID. And gave them money to do it.

So if a Bronson employee got sick, "it didn't come out of our sick time, it didn't come out of our PTO," our question-asker told us. PTO stands for Paid Time Off.

“It was just ‘you're sick, stay away from us and our patients, we don't want you to spread it.’”

Then vaccines and treatments made COVID more manageable and quarantine time shortened. Bronson’s COVID sick leave – funded by federal money - stopped last year. Now, our question-asker said, Bronson employees say they get just 40 hours of paid sick leave a year, the amount required under state law for an employer of Bronson’s size.

And while workers can take additional days off for COVID, our source said employees can get dinged for being out sick with anything else.

“COVID really showed us that it's not enough time,” said Jessica Cataldo, the director of the health administration school at Western Michigan University.

She added that studies have shown that states and businesses with generous paid sick leave lower infection rates and have a more productive work force.

“Forty hours, five days of paid sick leave, is one COVID illness," she noted. That’s because you still need to quarantine for five days according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

“We need protection of our workers at a state level, at a policy level,” said Cataldo, “and Michigan can do better.”

Our question-asker who works at Bronson said it’s easy to get sick when you work in a hospital. They said the limit on sick time leads employees to come to work when they don’t feel well, and maybe to skip a COVID test. After all, if you don’t know you have COVID, you don’t have to use up your days on quarantine.

“I'm certainly seeing a shift away from ‘Hey, you got the sniffles. You should probably go get a COVID test and go home.’ To ‘You have the sniffles. Just make sure your mask is on,’” the employee said.

That employee contracted COVID. Then they got sick a couple more times in the same year and did what Bronson said you should do: stay home. Bronson wrote them up for excessive absences.

The employee shared the email with us. It said they couldn’t apply for a job in another department for six months and if they got another warning, they might not get a raise.

Asked for comment, Bronson put WMUK in touch with Patricia McCann. She directs the hospital’s employee rewards program (Bronson Total Rewards). She seemed surprised to hear that some workers said they don’t have enough paid sick time. In an interview at the hospital, McCann said employees can use as much paid time off, or PTO, for sick days as they need.

“You can use PTO for personal days, you can use PTO for sick time, you can use PTO for vacation time, you can use PTO for holidays. That PTO bucket is yours to decide how you want to use it," she said.

But McCann is talking about scheduled time off. And nobody schedules coming down with COVID or the flu. So, what happens to a worker who’s already used up their five paid sick days? McCann admitted a new illness could count against them.

“If you're not notifying in advance, and you're notifying this, you know, right before your work, that would be considered an occurrence and it would be tracked,” she said.

Bronson's HR department confirmed that policy in an email to WMUK. There is an exception for employees who get COVID after they’ve used up their five paid sick days. The days that employee spends recovering from COVID won’t count against them, the way an absence for a cold or the flu would.

But employees can still run out of paid time off as they recover. That means they have to take remaining sick days unpaid. I asked McCann, if a worker can’t afford to take that time off, how do they survive?

“Because you need to, for your family's wellbeing, for your wellbeing," she said.

"And if you're out of PTO, we do have a program where you could potentially get PTO from one of your coworkers," McCann added.

But Bronson’s employee handbook states that donated time can only be used for a death or serious illness, not mild COVID or flu. And that’s assuming your coworkers have that time to donate.

“It's like this double-edged sword where you're like, you want it to be COVID because you're not going to have any disciplinary action," a second Bronson worker told WMUK. We are keeping them anonymous for the same reasons as the first employee: they are afraid of losing their job for commenting on Bronson's policies.

"But then you're like, okay, 'but if it is COVID I'm certainly not working for five, six, seven days, whatever your symptoms may be.'

And if you’re out of PTO - which, as McCann noted, employees also use for vacations and holidays - and you're not going to get paid for those days, it’s an incentive to come to work sick, the second employee said.

Michael Oswalt teaches labor and employment law at Wayne State University Law School.

“The reality is that unpaid time off is effectively no time off for an hourly worker. Especially if there's any possibility of being disciplined for it. It's a short-sighted system that, you know, in the end, hurts all of us,” Oswalt said.

It’s hard to know how Bronson’s policy stacks up against others in the region. We asked Corewell Health, formally Spectrum Health, how it handles PTO. It declined to comment. So did Ascension Borgess hospital of Kalamazoo.

Bronson Hospital’s Patricia McCann said Bronson will roll out a new flex benefits plan for 2024. Bronson will provide "dollars" for employees to buy paid time off, or even hire a dog walker if it suits their needs, she said.

“We're trying to expand what we call benefits to be a much wider variety of things that actually help you where you are in your stage of your life journey,” McCann said.

Oswalt called these ideas “bureaucratic sheen.” In other words, window dressing in the place of more generous sick leave, which workers say they need to keep themselves and their patients healthy.

“I think after their service to us throughout the pandemic, through the tripledemic, and now into the norovirus, we should believe them," he said.

Our question-asker said they like many things about working for Bronson.

"This is our attempt to make it known that Bronson does try, but they need to try harder," they said.

"Because if Bronson isn't willing to protect us now after the last pandemic, how can we trust them to protect us during the next pandemic?”

Leona has worked as a journalist for most of her life - in radio, print, television and as journalism instructor. She has a background in consumer news, special projects and investigative reporting.