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Coronavirus Outbreak Underscores Gap Between Workers Who Have Paid Sick Leave And Those Who Don't03:47
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The Marriott Long Wharf hotel in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Marriott Long Wharf hotel in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Update: The Boston Marriott Long Wharf, the hotel that hosted a Biogen company gathering linked to a majority of the coronavirus cases in Massachusetts, is closing temporarily. In a letter to guests on Thursday, the hotel said it made the decision with the Boston Public Health Commission.

The coronavirus outbreak is laying bare some of the inequities in the American workforce. Many white-collar workers can do their jobs from home to protect themselves. And if they do get sick, they have paid time off.

But for others, telecommuting isn't an option. And missing work because of illness may mean missing a paycheck.

One example of this imbalance is at the center of the largest coronavirus cluster in Massachusetts: The Boston Marriott Long Wharf Hotel.

When you step off an elevator, the hotel's gleaming lobby looks like it's just been scrubbed. And it has. A worker swabbing surfaces with Clorox wipes quips that the lobby is probably one of the cleanest places in Boston.

The lobby of the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel (Callum Borchers/WBUR)
The lobby of the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel (Callum Borchers/WBUR)

There's a reason to be vigilant: Public health officials say this is the hotel where an employee of the pharmaceutical giant Biogen infected several colleagues with the new coronavirus late last month. The transmission has been linked to the vast majority of Massachusetts cases, and Gov. Charlie Baker this week called on the business community to help stop the spread.

"Our administration is moving forward with enhanced guidance for employers and large organizations," Baker said at a Tuesday news conference. "Responding to this evolving health threat requires everyone to be vigilant and for everyone to be part of this effort."

The guidance includes working from home and avoiding large gatherings, if possible. But that didn’t come in time to prevent some of the Biogen executives who attended the Marriott Long Wharf conference from speaking at another health care event in a different Boston hotel a few days later.

In a recording posted on the company's website, you can hear someone in the group coughing as a moderator introduces Biogen leaders.

These days, Biogen employees are working from home. And those who have contracted the coronavirus can likely take time off without losing money because the company offers ample paid sick leave. But the hotel workers who serviced Biogen employees in recent weeks may not be so fortunate.

"Given the current situation with the coronavirus, one of the things we're concerned about is, in our industry as a whole, paid sick leave has been a big challenge," said Carlos Aramayo, secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 26, a union that represents thousands of the state's hospitality workers. "A lot of folks feel like they've got to power through that cold to come into work or feel like they need the money, right? And some of the recommendations we've seen from the CDC is that sometimes people need to take up to two weeks. And that's a lot of time for folks on an hourly basis to potentially lose significant income."

State law guarantees some paid sick leave for most workers but not enough to cover a prolonged absence. In an Oval Office address Wednesday night, President Trump said he would ask Congress to extend "financial relief" to workers who fall ill, are quarantined or miss work to care for others, but offered few details.

Unite Here Local 26 says it may use a fund normally reserved for strikes to pay workers who miss time. But that won't help employees of the Boston Marriott Long Wharf, who are not unionized.

Hotel managers didn't respond to interview requests, and employees said they’re not allowed to speak to the media.

The worker with the Clorox wipes said many employees have worked at the hotel for more than 20 years and have amassed enough paid time off to be OK.

This segment aired on March 12, 2020.

Related:

Callum Borchers Twitter Reporter
Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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