By Leah Catotti
Most of us are at least a little worried about Coronavirus (COVID-19) – and our fears have become increasingly valid as predictions worsen. But for the estimated 27% of private-sector US workers without paid sick leave,1 concerns about illness might be compounded by concerns about receiving the next paycheck. Many schools and workplaces have started to close down, and if COVID-19 continues to spread across the US as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projects, this is likely to affect more and more people. For low-wage workers, 70% of whom do not have paid sick leave,2 this also means that they won’t be paid – and that their families may suffer as a result.
And it’s not just those families who will be affected. One of the CDC’s key disease prevention recommendations (in addition to washing your hands) is for people to stay home when they’re sick. If coronavirus somehow does not end up being as widespread as predicted, it means that when businesses stay open, sick hourly workers will keep showing up in order to keep getting paid. Just 29% percent of Americans have enough savings to cover six months of expenses, and 55 million Americans have no emergency savings at all.3 When your family depends on your income, and you only get paid for the hours you show up, you’re going to show up whether you’re sick or not. And these choices, which aren’t really choices at all, are harmful to all of us – we are all at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 when restaurant workers, childcare workers, ride-share drivers, and other hourly workers are all but forced to continue to work even when they might be contagious.
So, how do we make it a viable possibility for sick workers in all sectors to stay home and prevent the spread of coronavirus? Simple: pay them!
Out of 22 high-income countries, the US is the only one that does not guarantee workers paid sick leave, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.4 Not coincidentally, half of US workers reported going to work sick in the last year.5 There are currently no US federal requirements that employers provide paid sick leave6 or pay hourly workers beyond the hours they actually work,7 meaning that when schools and businesses shut down, they don’t have to pay their workers. Even employers mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) are only required to provide unpaid sick leave — an important provision that protects workers from being fired over long absences due to serious illnesses, but one that provides few options for workers who need to keep being paid in order to keep putting food on the table.8
To ensure the health of all of our communities, it is time for the federal government to mandate at least 14 days of annual paid sick leave for all workers. We need coverage for part-time workers, hourly workers, workers new to their jobs, workers at small businesses, workers who do not have the privilege of working from home — all of us. Several US cities and states, including San Francisco, New York City, California, Michigan, New Jersey, and Washington (and many countries around the world) are leading the way in demonstrating how paid sick leave can be provided to all workers.9 It’s past time for the federal government to follow their lead.
Democrats in the US House of Representatives this week proposed (and will likely pass later today) the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” which guarantees 14 days of paid sick leave to workers.10 This bill is expected to go to the Senate for a vote sometime next week, meaning that now is the time for us to call on our legislators to take this moment to lead by passing this bill quickly, instead of turning our backs on workers.
Sure, there’s a lot more that our federal and local governments must do to mitigate the disease spread and economic fallout of COVID-19, but supporting workers with paid sick leave is an important start in both addressing the current crisis and minimizing the risk of future pandemics for all of us. While this bill is a crucial step forwards, it does not guarantee a permanent sick leave mandate. Once this crisis passes, we need to enact permanent sick leave protections that go beyond addressing the short-term issues.
Providing paid sick leave is not just the right thing to do – it will keep us all safer. And in the meantime, wash your hands, folks!
Leah Catotti is a first-year MPP student at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy and Digital Editor of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.