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The U.S. took a step closer to the rest of the world early Saturday morning when the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan coronavirus emergency bill that includes provisions for 10 days of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for those affected by COVID-19.
Even though the leave guarantees would be temporary, it was still a significant move for the U.S., which has long stood alone as the only wealthy country that doesn’t require paid time off for sick workers.
The problem is, there’s a fairly huge exemption in the bill: Big businesses don’t have to comply. Companies with more than 500 employees are not required to give workers sick leave or family leave under the bill. And small companies with 50 employers or fewer can seek hardship exemptions from the paid family and medical leave policy, narrowing its impact even more. Millions of workers are left out, increasing the risk that they’ll do their jobs while sick and further the spread of this virus.
The leave issue gained momentum as the epidemic worsened and health experts urged people to self-isolate to slow the spread of the virus. While some lucky higher-income workers can telecommute, many others don’t have that luxury.
Democrats compromised on their original proposal, which would have mandated leave for everyone, under pressure from the White House, a Democratic source close to the negotiations told HuffPost.
“Republicans didn’t support the mandate nor did they support leave for everyone. It was a clear nonstarter for them,” said the source, who requested anonymity to comment on the discussions. “Democrats preferred to have something rather than nothing. That was the choice we faced.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) negotiated closely with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to work out a deal palatable to the president and Republicans in the Senate, which is expected to vote on the measure Monday.
Pelosi said in a tweet late Saturday that she doesn’t support taxpayer money “subsidizing corporations to provide benefits to workers that they should already be providing.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why large employers were left out.
The private sector has played an outsize role in President Donald Trump’s so far haphazard and inadequate response to the pandemic. At a press conference about the coronavirus on Friday, Trump seemed to be actively promoting large companies, applauding them for their response to the public health crisis and leaving the federal government’s response in big business’s hands.
“It’s clear the fingerprints of the business lobby are all over the exclusions in the bill. It’s a real wake-up call about the power the big business lobby has in our politics and our policymaking.”
Leave advocates told HuffPost they were pleased to see bipartisan support for some kind of paid leave, but disappointed that so few Americans would see coverage.
About 47% of workers in the private sector in the U.S. are employed by companies with 500 employees or more, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 11% of those companies do not offer paid sick leave, leaving out about 6.5 million workers.
While that’s not a huge percentage, the lack of leave falls disproportionately on low-wage workers. While 94% of Americans who hold management jobs have paid sick leave, only 58% of service-sector workers (think retail and fast-food) have access.
At large companies that do offer sick leave, the median number of days on offer is eight, according to labor department data compiled by the Center for American Progress. That hardly seems enough to recover from COVID-19.
Paid family and medical leave is far less common. Only 27% of private sector companies offer paid time off for caregiving leave, according to data from the group Paid Leave for the United States, which tracks private companies’ policies.
“It’s clear the fingerprints of the business lobby are all over the exclusions in the bill,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow at New America and a longtime advocate for paid leave. “It’s a real wake-up call about the power the big business lobby has in our politics and our policymaking.”
A few large companies have put coronavirus emergency sick leave policies in place, giving workers paid time off if they’re diagnosed or quarantined. But these policies aren’t as good as they might seem in press releases.
McDonald’s for example is only offering emergency leave to workers in its corporate stores, but that covers only about 10% of its restaurants. It’s unclear if franchise restaurants will be included in sick leave provisions. Other large employers, like Waffle House, Subway, Chick-fil-A, Cracker Barrel, Outback Steakhouse and the Cheesecake Factory, don’t have a policy, according to a Saturday editorial in The New York Times.
Many workers must first test positive for COVID-19 to obtain paid leave or officially be placed under quarantine, but getting a test in the U.S. is still difficult.
The compromise reached Friday would offer 10 days’ emergency paid sick leave for those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, have symptoms, need to be tested, or who are under quarantine. (Democrats had originally proposed 14 days.) Sick leave would also be available for those exposed to someone else with the disease. However, the bill would not cover leave for high-risk workers who wish to avoid exposure to the virus on the job.
The bill would also provide the time off to workers regardless of how long they’ve been with their firms. That’s different from many corporate policies that require workers to “earn” paid time off by working.
Workers would also be able to tap 12 weeks’ paid leave for themselves or a sick family member, and receive two-thirds of their wages. The provisions would be paid for through tax credits for businesses.
This is a short-term bill only meant to offer relief to families dealing with the coronavirus. Other provisions include money for making coronavirus tests more widely available and expanded unemployment insurance.
The leave provisions would also only last for one year to deal with the crisis. Then the U.S. will go back to guaranteeing workers nothing.
“On sick days and paid leave, these are temporary measures,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), one of the most die-hard leave advocates in the House, in a statement. “While this will help millions, millions are still left out. So, I will build on these programs. It should not, and must not, take a pandemic to get working people the economic relief and stability they need.”
The bill is also not as good for female workers as it is for male ones. Workers who take the sick leave for themselves would get 100% wage replacement. Those who take time off for caregiving ― a majority of whom will likely be women ― because a loved one is sick or their child’s school is closed would only get two-thirds wage replacement.
Still, advocates are applauding Pelosi for negotiating something with this White House, and pushing for the bill’s passage.
“The House bill we started with was very strong and covered more workers, and it’s really congressional Republicans and the White House that carved out millions of workers,” said Shilpa Phadke, vice president of the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress. “At the end of the day this is still a significant victory.”