Paid sick days and paid leave are health and economic recovery requirements

Recent stories of grocery, retail, fast food, warehouse, healthcare and meatpacking workers compelled to work despite having coronavirus symptoms shock the conscience. 

Some workers are so fearful for themselves, their co-workers and families that they have engaged in work stoppages and strikes

Despite concerns from workers and consumers, and with only weak plans to reduce health risks, President Trump and many governors are pushing to reopen the economy. Congressional Republicans now want immunity for employers who reopen — without providing any additional worker or consumer protections. That’s absurd and dangerous. 

The country needs a reopening plan that includes widespread testing, contract tracing and the ability to quarantine. In addition, all workers in the United States must have access to paid sick days and paid family and medical leave. 

The United States is the only high-wealth country that doesn’t guarantee either. As a result, roughly one-quarter of U.S. workers have no paid sick days, 60 percent don’t have temporary disability insurance through their jobs for serious health issues that last weeks or months and 81 percent of workers have no access to employer-provided paid family leave.  

Faced with a deadly pandemic, Congress knew this large gap in our nation’s health safety net had to be addressed, if only on a temporary, emergency basis.  

On March 18, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act became law. Through the end of 2020, some U.S. workers are guaranteed up to 10 paid sick days for personal or family care related to COVID-19. In addition, the parents of children whose school or child care is closed can take up to 10 weeks of paid leave. The federal government will reimburse employers. 

Families First covers about half of the nation’s workforce, at best. Unfortunately, the law is badly flawed and its exemptions and scope require urgent correction. 

As lawmakers debate the next pandemic response package, they must fill the Families First Act’s gaps. They should also cast an eye to the future and guarantee access to paid sick days and paid family and medical leave — permanently. 

A proposed bill would do just that. The PAID Leave Act, championed by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), would provide COVID-19-related paid sick days and paid family and medical leave to all workers during the coronavirus pandemic, subsidized by the government. It also includes permanent paid sick day requirements similar to those now in place in 11 states and nearly two dozen localities. It also creates a national paid family and medical leave program modeled on existing law in eight states and Washington, D.C

The gaps in the Families First law starkly reveal the limits and dangers of cutting legislative corners. 

For example, the law only applies to businesses with under 500 employees — carving out the largest companies in America

But large companies provide paid sick time unevenly at best, and not at all at worst. As a result, an estimated 68 million workers — including those on the frontlines in grocery and big box stores and warehouses — have no guaranteed paid sick days in this emergency. 

The law and the Department of Labor regulations also allow exemptions for some 13 million workers involved in an exceptionally broad swath of health care and emergency response jobs. Ensuring these workers have access to paid sick days is critical to their own health and the health of the communities they are charged with helping.

Guaranteeing paid sick days for all workers will enhance efforts to make consumers feel safe as public officials ease social distancing restrictions and as we all brace for a second wave. 

The same goes for extended paid leave beyond 10 paid sick days. In fact, Congress’ first vote on the Families First Act included an additional 10 weeks of paid family and medical leave. But Republicans forced a “technical correction” that limited paid leave only to parents of children whose school or child care provider is closed. 

As a result, the law left millions financially vulnerable — people, for example, whose COVID-19 is serious enough to require weeks of recovery, or those who take time off to care for an older family member with COVID-19 whose recovery is complicated. 

The pandemic has cast a bright light on the failure of a voluntary and incremental approach to paid sick time. Were the guarantees in the proposed PAID Leave Act in place this year — as its key elements are in all other developed countries — lives would have been saved and the financial impact on families greatly eased. 

For the American public, this is not a partisan issue. A recent poll found that 87 percent of voters say Congress should extend paid sick days and paid leave protections to all workers in this emergency, and polling has long shown that the vast majority of Americans support permanent protections. 

Congress should listen without delay. 

Vicki Shabo is a senior fellow for Paid Leave Policy and Strategy at New America, a Washington, D.C. think tank; Shabo has testified numerous times before Congress regarding paid leave and workplace policies. Steven Findlay is an independent health policy analyst and journalist. You can follow them on twitter @vshabo and @stevefindlay1.

Tags Ayanna Pressley Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Economic recovery economic reopening health recovery Kirsten Gillibrand medical leave paid leave Paid sick leave Patty Murray Quarantine Rosa DeLauro Social distancing

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