Monkeypox Is Leaving Working-Class People In Financial Ruin

“I have rent money due in six or seven days, I have a car that I have to pay insurance on, [and] I have bills I have to pay — I’m probably about to be about $3,000 in the hole,” Mackey said. “If I’m being transparent, I only have like $67 to my name at the moment.”

Realizing they needed to turn to GoFundMe left Perry and Mackey, neither of whom have health insurance, with a sense of shame. “Everyone knows I’m not the type of person to ask for help,” Mackey said.

“It was embarrassing at first,” Perry said, “but I do believe that there are people with a good heart.”

Whether a person has the legal right to sick leave largely depends on their individual circumstances. A small handful of states and cities have passed their own laws on the issue. On the federal level, some workers may have the right to take time off — unpaid — due to illness under the Family and Medical Leave Act, but depending on the size of the company and their length of service, they might not be eligible.

“[Since] we don’t have universal sick leave in the United States … people are left to their corporate policies,” Steven Thrasher, a journalism and public health professor at Northwestern University and author of The Viral Underclass, told BuzzFeed News.

Putting the power in employers’ hands means that whether a worker can take time off when they’re sick, and whether they’re paid during that period, can vary drastically — and marginalized people are often the ones in the toughest situations, as the COVID-19 pandemic has already established. It’s no coincidence that Black and Latino people — who are less likely to have access to paid sick leave, and more likely to be essential workers who cannot work remotely — are about twice as likely to be hospitalized and die of COVID-19 than white people.

These racial discrepancies are similarly reflected in the data when it comes to monkeypox. Black and Latino individuals each account for about a third of monkeypox cases in the US, CDC data shows, despite only 14% of all Americans being Black and 19% being Latino. More than 40% of monkeypox vaccines that have been administered so far have gone to white people; only about 10% went to Black people, and less than a quarter went to Latino people.

There are many reasons why these vaccine disparities exist, but certainly one of the biggest is the difficulty in accessing one. Appointments are extremely hard to come by, typically getting snapped up online within minutes, and people often have to wait in line for hours for walk-in slots. But this process is all the more challenging, or downright impossible, if you’re an hourly worker, can’t work from home, or can’t take time off during the day.

“If you’re the kind of person who has a job … where you’re at the computer, you can hit refresh, refresh, refresh, refresh, so you can get an appointment. And then if you’re told there’s a vaccine appointment even miles away at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, you can just schedule your day around that,” Thrasher said. But if your job doesn’t allow for this flexibility, or you don’t have a car or childcare or reliable internet access, getting vaccinated might not be easy.

To make matters more challenging, there’s the stigma that comes with monkeypox. Though anyone can contract monkeypox, the vast majority of people currently getting it are men who have sex with men, with transmission mostly occurring due to sexual contact. Informing your employer you need time off to recover from monkeypox could essentially mean outing yourself.

Seeing these identity-based disparities seep into yet another health crisis has left some experts wondering: Have we learned nothing from COVID-19?

“When the nation was facing 10,000 covid cases… we were putting in place federal paid leave for people who needed to isolate and quarantine,” said Theresa Chapple, an epidemiologist and director of the health department in Oak Park, Illinois. “I see no conversations about that right now when it comes to monkeypox. I think we really need to be restarting those conversations at the national level — though knowing that the real conversation we need to have is about universal paid leave.”

But that can seem like a long shot if you consider the existing American social norms surrounding work and health. Even for those who are permitted to take sick time, many remote employees report feeling more pressure to clock in when ill than they did before the pandemic. It’s a cultural convention that goes all the way to the top — when President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive for COVID-19, both publicly emphasized that they were continuing to work while isolating.

“I think the one thing that we decided to take away from COVID is that people should work while they’re sick,” Chapple said. “When instead the lesson should’ve been around what support systems, what mechanisms, we need to have in place so people can recover from illness in this country.

“I think we’ve decided that it’s the economy over health, capitalism over health,” she said. “It’s not just will you get sick — it’s will you get sick and can you continue to work through it?”