Low-wage workers who are sick don't have access to paid leave. The U.S. is the only developed country without a paid leave policy
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While some companies have stepped up to protect its workers, a Senate bill that would have required employers to give workers paid leave in a public health emergency was blocked.

As the country grapples with containing the spread of coronavirus that has sickened over 1,200 Americans, closed more than 1,500 secondary schools, and even canceled presidential rallies, the need for a federal paid sick leave policy in the U.S. is more urgent than ever.

Low-wage and part-time workers are the least likely to have paid sick leave, and often cannot afford to take off work otherwise. Currently, 32 million workers in the U.S. do not have paid sick leave—meaning, millions of workers are showing up to their places of employment sick. Research shows that paying employees to stay home while ill significantly reduces the spread of flu in the workplace.

The United States is the only wealthy nation in the world without a federally mandated paid leave policy. While the Trump administration has expressed interest in a paid leave program in the past, it has not offered a formal proposal or thrown its support behind any legislation that’s aimed to address this issue.

A dozen states plus Washington D.C. do require employers offer paid time off for illness. But even in places that require such leave, employers often use legal loopholes, such as designating workers as contractors instead of employees, to avoid enforcing the policy.

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends employers “ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance” and to “encourage sick employees to stay home.” Some companies have called for social distancing, like having employees work from home; many workers in the U.S., however, are unable to do their jobs remotely.

Low-wage workers, such as those in retail, domestic care, and food service, must interact with the general public as a feature of their job. When employees are forced to work sick, whether in fear of retribution from their bosses or because they have no alternative source of income, efforts to contain a viral outbreak are less effective. 

“These are very public-facing jobs. In addition to being concerned about the health of the worker and their families, these are also jobs where the possible spread of contagion is very high,” Pronita Gupta, director of job quality at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), told COURIER. 

The threat of coronavirus, which has now been declared a global pandemic, appears to be shifting some attitudes in the private sector. Walmart announced on Tuesday the implementation of a new COVID-19 emergency leave policy: In addition to its existing sick paid leave policy, the company will also offer up to two weeks of paid time off for workers who get sick with or are quarantined because of coronavirus.

Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse, also announced this week it was giving all hourly employees permanent, paid sick leave benefits, effective immediately.

In the absence of a federal policy, states and privately owned companies are left with no choice but to step up to protect their workers. 

Of course, that doesn’t always happen. Last week, Chipotle workers in New York City walked off the job to protest the company’s stance on paid sick leave. Employees say that managers have pressured them to work while sick, and retaliated against them for taking legally required paid time off. One worker, Jeremy Pereyra, told Gothamist that he worried about getting written up when he woke up one day too sick to make it to his 7 a.m. shift.

Pereyra joined about 40 hourly employees on Friday to march down Sixth Avenue while chanting, “If we work sick, then you get sick” and “Coronavirus has got to go.” They demand the company comply with New York City’s Paid Sick Leave Law, which requires employers with at least five employees provide up to 40 hours of paid sick leave, and have filed complaints against the chain. 

Another worker, Luisa Mendez, was illegally fired from her job at Chipotle for using multiple sick days she had earned to care for her sick father and pregnant daughter. Her case was ultimately settled, and she got her job back as well as a $2,500 restitution, said Shirley Aldebol, vice president of 32BJ SEIU, the food service union that has been working for months with Chipotle workers to unionize.

“It is line workers, like Ms. Mendez, who are hurt when a corporation like Chipotle pays lip service to reforms while breaking the law,” Aldebol told COURIER.

On Friday, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Paid Sick Days for Public Health Emergencies and Personal and Family Care Act as an extension of the Healthy Families Act (HFA), a proposal the lawmakers have championed since 2004 that would install a federal paid sick leave program. 

The new legislation—which has garnered support from the National Partnership for Women and Families and National Employment Law Project—would require employers to allow workers to earn seven days of paid sick leave. In a public health emergency, it would require all employers to provide 14 additional paid sick days, which could be used when an employee’s child’s school is closed, when an employer is closed, and if a family is quarantined or isolated due to a public health emergency. 

CLASP is another supporter of the bill. “We need a national policy because at the end of the day this sort of piecemeal, jurisdiction by jurisdiction is not helping,” Gupta said. “There are many parts of the country where there are no sick days allowed, mostly the South. You want a policy that creates a floor across the nation.”

In a statement, Sen. Murray pointed out that COVID-19 “isn’t going away anytime soon.”

“Workers want to do the right thing for themselves, their families, and their communities—so especially in the middle of public health crises like this, staying home sick shouldn’t have to mean losing a paycheck or a job,” she continued. “This bill would immediately give workers the ability to care for themselves, their families, and help keep their communities safe.  We need to pass it without delay.”’

On Wednesday, however, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) blocked the Senate Democrats’ effort to quickly pass the legislation. Alexander claimed it would place an undue financial burden on employers but suggested he was open to supporting a proposal that was federally funded.