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Megan Amrich headshot

COVID-19 Brings Paid Sick Leave Debate to the Forefront

Without paid sick leave, millions of workers now face a nightmare scenario, one in which many are forced to decide between their health or a paycheck.
By Megan Amrich
Paid Sick Leave

On Saturday morning, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an emergency bill that would jumpstart and economic response to the coronavirus crisis. The bill provides, among other things, economic benefits such as paid sick leave to employees at companies with workforces of less than 500 people.

While, as of press time, the bill waits to continue to the Senate and President Trump for passage, event cancellations, travel restrictions and business closings are increasing at a neck-breaking pace normally reserved for Twitter feuds and celebrity scandals. As parking lots at office buildings and shopping centers become empty (as shown above), the vast majority of workers in the service industries don't have the option, of course, to "work remotely."

One thing that has not changed, however, is the fact that millions of American workers are now facing an entirely new economic game, one in which many are forced to decide between their health (and the health of their families) or a paycheck. Here is a brief look at how the continued coronavirus crisis is affecting employees who may not currently have paid leave benefits.

The gig economy’s benefits (or lack thereof)

Many of the economic policies – such as paid sick leave - currently being discussed by Congress and the President would not apply to self-employed workers, freelancers or those in the “gig economy”. Workers like rideshare drivers or delivery people are not considered company employees, so they do not qualify.

Many of these employers – such as InstaCart and Lyft – have stated they will be changing sick pay policies during this time to assist workers infected with or quarantined due to coronavirus. These changes are not permanent, however, and do not affect those sick with other illnesses.

Over the past few days, tech companies have made headlines for encouraging employees to telecommute. While these shifts should help full-time employees, those in contract, temp or part-time positions may not have the same options. For many, not only do they not qualify for paid sick time, but they also are not eligible for work-from-home options, even during the coronavirus.

As one subcontractor at Google said in an interview with The Guardian, “I’ve heard from multiple people that they feel like we’ve been forgotten and abandoned – and that our health and safety is clearly less important than the Googlers’. Our second-class status now has literal health implications.”

A difference in class when it comes to paid sick leave

Just as in the above quote, the word “class” is seen in many reports and articles on the need for paid sick leave.

Ellen Ernst Kossek, a management professor at Purdue University, studies work-life issues in the public and private sectors. In a 2018 paper in the Academy of Management Annals, she reported that employees most likely to benefit from policies such as paid leave or work-from-home flexibility – were often those least likely to have access to such policies.

“It should be something that doesn’t matter where you stand in the American class system,” Kossek said in a release about the impact coronavirus could have on the paid leave debate. “Work-life flexibility and time off for family and personal needs is a job equality issue; it’s a public health equality issue; it’s an American worker issue. You can see now that some people may be causing exposure or becoming more exposed because this has not been dealt with equally across the economic strata.”

Indeed, paid sick leave can be a powerful tool in limiting exposure to contagious illnesses. According to Sunday’s editorial in The New York Times, one recent study found “requiring paid sick leave reduced cases of influenza by 11 percent in the first year after a new law took effect.”

Paid leave makes financial sense

Opponents of paid leave laws often cite fiduciary responsibility as a main reason for not offering employees payment while home sick. However, many profitable companies already offer employees paid leave benefits. Fast-food chain In-n-Out Burger and grocery store chains Stop & Shop and Safeway are some examples.

The truth is, paid leave can be a positive feature for businesses.

As TriplePundit’s Executive Editor Leon Kaye wrote last week:

Paid sick leave shouldn’t be viewed as an expense, but an insurance policy. The costs associated with employees getting their colleagues and customers sick go beyond the ledger — they involve human suffering, not to mention a company’s brand reputation if an outbreak gets out of hand.

Around the world, paid sick leave is the norm, rather than the exception. The U.S. is one of the only developed countries without such a nationwide policy. Even within America, 13 states and numerous large cities have passed legislation mandating employers to offer paid sick leave options.

According to the aforementioned New York Times editorial, providing paid sick leave cost employers an average of just 2.7 cents per hour of paid work. And contrary to common arguments against paid leave, researchers found no evidence that paid sick leave laws resulted in employers having to reduce wages, limit benefits, or hire fewer workers.

So while big-name companies continue to tout the “generosity” of their temporary paid sick leave policies, perhaps they should be working to learn from this current coronavirus crisis and craft sustainable permanent policies that benefit both their bottom lines and the health of the community.

Image credit: Gerrie van der Walt/Unsplash

Megan Amrich headshot

Megan is a writer and editor interested in sharing stories of positive change and resilience. She is the author of Show Up and Bring Coffee, a book highlighting how to support friends who are parents of disabled children. You can follow her at JoyfulBraveAwesome.com.

Read more stories by Megan Amrich