Time for Federal Sick Leave Law
The Covid-19 crisis underscores why American workers need paid sick time.
So many companies are starting to make provision for their employees to work at work if the Covid-19 epidemic gets worse… which is most likely will. That’s great. It’s a good time to make sure employees have adequate internet connectivity, and that the company will set up to install Zoom or Hangouts on everyone’s devices. Cool.
But the stark reality is that many workers — the frontline workers in restaurants, hotels, and construction, and the gig workers driving for Uber or toiling in Amazon warehouses — do not have access to any paid leave. And these are exactly the people who will be most likely to get sick since they cannot work at home, and naturally come in contact with others who may be sick.
And when they get sick, they are likely to come to work and infect others. Why is that? Two reasons:
- Their employers are cheap, and only want to pay for the minutes they spend at work. No sick pay, no vacation pay, no paid medical furloughs.
- The United States government has not passed legislation to make paid sick leave the law of the land.
Note that we are the only developed economy in the world to require zero sick leave for workers.
In the chart above, you can see the US at the absolute bottom of the heap.
This is a perfect time for Congress to pass legislation providing as least 5 paid sick days and some reasonable amount of paid medical furlough, like 10 days.
Yes, I know the Republicans and the businesses that would have to make these payments will drag their feet. Let them look like they are happy to help spread coronavirus and increase the transmission rate by forcing sick waiters and retail clerks to come to work when sick. But the trajectory of social justice is pointing in this direction and now would be a good time to jump on board.
Update: The NY Times editorial board agrees with me, writing this today: Best Treatment for the Coronavirus? Paid Sick Leave.
At this point, the crisis also demands unorthodox solutions. To restrict the spread of the coronavirus, the government needs to put limits on commerce. The best way to protect people, and the economy, is to limit economic activity. That is an unfortunate but inescapable truth. Public health officials will need to impose quarantines, businesses will need to cancel meetings. And most of all, the problem now and going forward is making sure that sick workers stay home. That means not forcing employees to choose between penury and working while coughing.
Congress can help by mandating that workers receive paid time off if they fall ill, or if they need to care for an ailing family member. Such a policy is necessary both to impede the spread of the virus and its economic harm. Roughly one-quarter of workers in the private sector — about 32 million people — are not entitled to any paid sick days. Absent legislation, they face a choice between endangering the health of co-workers and customers and calling in sick and losing their wages and perhaps also their jobs.
The current system is practically devised to spread infectious disease. Among the people least likely to have paid sick days, and therefore most likely to work through illness, are low-wage service workers like restaurant employees and home health care aides. (Those workers also are less likely to have health insurance, which compounds the problem.)
Most developed nations require employers to provide some form of paid sick leave, and the United States should do so, too. Some states already mandate sick leave, and a recent study found that the adoption of such laws reduced cases of influenza by 11 percent in their first year. Whatever the course of the coronavirus, mandatory sick leave for American workers would improve the lives of families and insulate the economy against pandemics.
If Congress cannot bring itself to do the right thing, however, it still could help by mandating sick leave specifically for this coronavirus. A 2013 study of workers in Allegheny County, Pa., estimated that allowing them to take up to two paid “flu days” would have reduced workplace transmission of the flu by roughly 39 percent.
At least do that, Congress.