Coronavirus puts paid sick leave benefits under scrutiny

As coronavirus spreads, the CDC urges sick workers to stay home — but what if you don’t get paid sick leave?

Coronavirus puts paid sick leave benefits under scrutiny

As scientists race to develop a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prescribed “everyday preventive actions” to stem the spread of respiratory diseases, including staying home when sick. But some low-wage and gig workers might have a tough choice on their hands: heeding public-health guidance about the novel coronavirus or earning a paycheck.

President Trump was set to weigh policy proposals this week to mitigate economic fallout from the virus, including paid sick leave. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats, insisted Sunday that any plan to address the outbreak’s economic impact should include paid sick leave.

Worldwide, there were 116,152 COVID-19 cases and 4,088 deaths as of Tuesday morning; about 64,385 people had recovered, according to data published by the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering. The U.S. had 761 cases as of Tuesday morning.

Public-health experts believe that COVID-19 spreads primarily from person to person, both between people who are within about six feet of each other and through droplets produced by a sick person’s cough or sneeze. Spread from contact with objects or surfaces infected with the virus might also be possible, though it is not the main form of transmission, the CDC says.

“ Only 58% of workers in service occupations had access to paid sick leave in 2019, compared to 90% of workers in management, professional and related occupations. ”

“There’s a reason why people are going to work when they or their kids are sick, if they don’t have paid sick days,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank. “They have to put food on the table and a roof over their head.”


federal law doesn’t currently guarantee paid sick leave, though eligible employees who work for companies covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for serious health conditions and other medical situations. Some 73% of private-industry workers had access to paid sick leave in 2019, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, compared to 91% of state and local government employees.

But that private-industry figure can vary greatly by a worker’s pay and occupation: Just 30% of workers in the lowest 10% of wages have access to paid sick days, while the same is true of 93% of workers in the highest 10% of wages. Only 58% of workers in service occupations had access to paid sick leave in 2019, compared to 90% of workers in management, professional and related occupations.

And full-time workers are far more ly to have access to paid sick-leave benefits than part-time workers, who are disproportionately women.

Generally speaking, many low-wage workers are in service professions, including ones that deal with food, kids and the elderly, Gould added.

“It’s problematic if people who are sick and have a particularly contagious disease feel they have no choice but to go to work,” she said.

“It’s obviously even worse if you’re working in an occupation where you have a lot of contact with the public or with clients.”

“ ‘High-paid workers who can afford to stay home will stay home. They will be increasing demand for services food delivery.’ ”

A 2017 EPI report co-authored by Gould estimated that for the average worker without paid sick-leave access, the lost wages associated with staying home for about three days would amount to their household’s entire monthly grocery budget or monthly utilities budget.

The outlook can be similarly bleak for gig workers for, say, a rideshare company or food-delivery service — many of whom aren’t eligible for benefits that would allow them to stay home and receive health care when they’re sick, said Sara Holoubek, the CEO and founder of the New York-based strategy and innovation consultancy Luminary Labs.

“High-paid workers who can afford to stay home will stay home.

They will be increasing demand for services food delivery,” Holoubek said hypothetically of a potential outbreak in New York City, which had 25 confirmed cases as of Tuesday.

“If that food-delivery worker or food-prep person is not entitled to the same benefits, does social isolation actually work if they are sick or are being exposed to those who are?”

About half — 47% — of U.S. workers said they’ve gone to work while sick in the past year, a recent poll by HuffPost and the polling firm YouGov found.

Access to paid sick leave is one thing, but the ability to seek out health care is another, Gould added. Many millions of people in the U.S. still lack health-insurance coverage, she pointed out — 27.9 million non-elderly people in 2018, to be exact.

Going to work in hopes that you don’t spread a virus, or staying home and losing pay is a predicament for millions of workers. “It’s a very unfortunate conundrum that a lot of employees face currently, even without a major outbreak,” said Edgar Ndjatou, a former employment attorney and executive director of the nonprofit employee-rights organization Workplace Fairness.

“In some places, if you’re a restaurant worker and you’re sick, you can’t just stay home,” he told MarketWatch. “A lot of people face this situation now, and I think it will be made worse if there’s an outbreak.”

How paid sick leave can help reduce the spread of illness

Some research suggests that paid sick leave can play a role in slowing the spread of contagious illnesses.

A 2017 study published in the journal PLoS One that found that access to paid sick days was associated with employees staying home from work for an illness or injury, an influenza- illness, or the flu, as well as for a child’s injury or illness.

(The flu, which is caused by different viruses from COVID-19, also spreads from person to person mainly through respiratory droplets.)

“ One 2010 report estimated that people infected with the H1N1 virus who showed up to work caused up to 7 million coworkers’ infections. ”

“Access to [paid sick days] is ly to reduce the spread of disease in workplaces by increasing the rate at which sick employees stay home from work, and reduce the economic burden of staying home on minorities, women, and families,” the authors wrote.

A 2010 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington, D.C.

-based think tank, estimated that people infected with the H1N1 virus who showed up to work had caused up to 7 million coworkers’ infections.

“Presenteeism — attending work while ill — among private-sector employees without paid sick days may have extended the duration of the outbreak in that sector,” the report said.

Paid sick leave could even benefit a company’s bottom line, research suggests. CDC researchers who examined data from 2007 to 2014 estimated that giving workers paid sick leave “might save employers almost $1 billion to $2 billion, expressed in 2016 dollars, in reduced absenteeism costs related to flu and similar illnesses during each of these years.”

‘Public policy can play a role’

Employers could implement company policies that allow for paid sick leave and/or protecting workers’ jobs if they miss work for coronavirus-related reasons, Ndjatou said.

“It will be interesting to see in the next couple of months, if the coronavirus has become a major health issue in the U.S., if employers and [the] local, state or federal governments will try to step in to try to help low-wage workers stay afloat,” he said.

An increasing number of states, cities and counties have enacted paid sick-leave laws in recent years.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia now require that some employees receive paid sick leave, according to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, New York City, Westchester County, Philadelphia, Dallas and Seattle also have such laws, according to the nonprofit National Partnership for Women & Families.

“Public policy can play a role in reducing the spreading of illnesses such as this one,” Gould said, “by making it economically feasible for workers to stay home to take care of themselves and their families.”

This story was originally published on March 2, 2020 and has been updated.


Coronavirus Puts a Spotlight on Paid Leave Policies

Coronavirus puts paid sick leave benefits under scrutiny

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health officials recommend that people who are sick with COVID-19 should stay home and that employers should consider implementing a telecommuting program when possible. Benefits such as sick leave and family leave can help employees follow these guidelines. However, the U.S.

does not have national standards on paid family or sick leave. Our current system is a patchwork of policies that are determined by employers, state and local laws, or negotiated through labor contracts. Offer rates vary between employers, the reasons for needing leave, and the employment status of their workers.

The lack of a national policy means some employees are forced to take unpaid leave, or come to work when they are ill. The lack of paid leave disproportionately impacts certain populations, including low-income persons, who are less ly to have access to these benefits, and could have public health consequences if people cannot afford to take time off.

Lack of paid leave also has a large impact on women, who take on the bulk of health care responsibilities for their family members and may have to miss work as a result.

While there have been previous congressional efforts to create a uniform national floor for paid leave, this issue has gained new urgency with efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19. Since the outbreak began in the U.S.

, the President has signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Response Act as well as the C.A.R.E.S. Act.

These laws include the following emergency short-term paid sick leave benefits and longer-term paid family leave policies.

  • Employers with fewer than 500 employees and all public employers are required to provide up to two weeks of fully-paid sick leave (up to $5,110) for immediate use to workers unable to work due to their own quarantine or symptoms of coronavirus, and up to two-thirds of regular pay for two weeks (up to $2,000) for employees who are unable to work in order to care for someone in quarantine or whose child’s school or daycare is closed because of coronavirus.
  • Separately, employers with fewer than 500 employees and all public employers are required to provide paid family leave to workers who are unable to work because their child’s school or daycare has closed due to coronavirus in the amount of two-thirds of their regular pay (up to $10,000) for up to 12 weeks, after a 10-day unpaid waiting period.
  • The emergency paid family leave benefit only applies to employees covered by Title II of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA); therefore, most federal employees are not eligible.
  • Neither emergency paid leave provision applies to employees of private businesses with 500 or more employees.
  • Health care workers, emergency responders, and certain federal employees in the Executive Branch may also be excluded from receiving these benefits.
  • Workers employed by a business with fewer than 50 employees may also be excluded from receiving these benefits if their reason for missing work is due to their child’s school or daycare closure.
  • Participating employers will receive advanceable quarterly tax credits to cover the costs of providing the new leave benefits.
  • All provisions take effect 15 days after enactment (April 1, 2020), do not provide for retroactive benefits, and expire December 31, 2020.

Access to paid sick leave benefits varies greatly between employees, employers, and regions

Sick leave benefits typically allow employees to miss work without losing pay when they or a family member has a short-term illness. There is no federal requirement that employers offer employees paid sick leave, but some employees, including federal government employees, have generally had access to paid sick leave through employee benefits packages.

Thirteen states plus D.C. and 22 cities and counties1 have passed laws requiring that eligible employees get paid time off to care for themselves or sick family members.

Another two states (ME and NV) require employers to provide general paid time off for workers to use as needed, including for sick leave (Figure 1).

These state and local laws, however, do not apply to all workers in these locations; small employers are sometimes exempt, and part-time workers and those who have worked for their employers for a short duration may not be eligible for these benefits.

Additionally, the duration, accrual rates, and circumstances under which paid sick leave may be taken vary by policy and state. Eight states’ and 11 localities’ requirements explicitly apply to public health emergencies, such as closure of a business or child’s school to protect public health.

In response to coronavirus, on March 17, 2020, New York state implemented a temporary emergency paid sick leave law for workers who are subject to coronavirus-related quarantine (or to care for their children subject to quarantine). Since then, another four states, plus D.C., and 14 localities2 have passed their own emergency paid sick leave laws, many aimed at closing the gaps in the federal FFCRA legislation.

Figure 1: State and Local Paid Sick Leave Laws, 2020​

Research suggests that paid sick leave can help stem the spread of illness by reducing presenteeism (going to work ill) in the workplace and the chance of sending sick children to school or daycare. Sick workers are more ly to stay home when they do not lose pay. Parents with paid sick leave benefits may be less ly to send sick children to school than parents without these benefits.

How many workers have paid sick leave?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, three in four (75%) of workers in private industry have access to at least some paid sick leave, as do approximately nine in ten (91%) state and local government workers.

However, there are wide disparities in access to paid sick leave (Table 1). Among private industry workers, rates of paid sick leave rise with wages, with about half (49%) of workers in the lowest wage quartile ($13.25/hour on average) having this benefit, compared to 92% in the highest quartile.

Less than half of part-time workers (45%) in private industry have paid sick leave, compared to 86% of full-time employees. The lower lihood of paid sick leave for part-time workers has a disproportionate impact on women, who are more ly than men to hold part-time jobs. Workers in certain industries are more ly to have paid sick leave than in others.

Union workers (88%) and workers are larger employers (88%) are more ly than non-union workers (74%) and workers at smaller employers (66%) to offer paid sick leave to their workers. Access to paid sick leave also varies by worker occupation.

For example, 95% of workers in management, business, and financial occupations have paid sick leave, compared to 57% of workers in construction, extraction, farming, fishing, and forestry occupations.

Among workers in private industry who have paid leave benefits, the average duration is seven days; however, one-quarter (25%) of workers have fewer than five days. For state and local government workers, the average is 11 days, and 9% have fewer than five days.

Table 1. Share of Private Industry and Government Workers with Access to Paid Sick Leave, 2020
Private IndustryState/Local Govt.
All Workers75%91%
Average Wage:
Lowest 25%49%79%
Second 25%80%96%
Third 25%87%97%
Highest 25%92%96%
Employer Size:


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