Health Experts Demand Paid Leave Before Schools Reopen

More than 500 health professionals signed a letter calling for the expansion of paid family and sick leave to all American workers.
A 7-year-old boy wearing a mask waits at the bus stop on Aug. 3, the first day of school in Dallas, Georgia.
A 7-year-old boy wearing a mask waits at the bus stop on Aug. 3, the first day of school in Dallas, Georgia.
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

Hundreds of health experts are cautioning the Trump administration against reopening schools in the fall without the federal government first establishing a paid leave program for all American workers.

More than 500 health professionals signed a letter calling for universal paid family and sick leave, which was sent on Monday to the White House, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. The letter, which was organized through the Paid Leave for All campaign, urges the Trump officials to push Congress to expand the emergency paid leave policy that was enacted earlier during the coronavirus pandemic.

“As public health professionals and organizations dedicated to protecting the public’s health, we know that access to comprehensive paid leave is critical to being able to safely return to in-person instruction,” the letter reads. “We write to urge the administration and Congress to ensure universal access to emergency paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave through 2021.”

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which Congress passed in March, provides funding for up to two weeks of paid sick days, plus 10 weeks of paid emergency child care leave if schools or child care facilities are shut down. (Parents and care givers can take an additional two weeks of unpaid emergency child care leave.) But this paid leave program is set to expire at the end of this year.

The current policy also excludes all workers at companies with more than 500 employees, leaving millions of front-line workers — like those at big grocery store chains — without leave protections. The letter calls on lawmakers to end the exemption of large companies.

Health experts are concerned that without a comprehensive paid leave program, millions of people will face financial pressure to continue going to work even if they begin to experience COVID-19 symptoms. And while reopening schools should ease the burden on many parents, those who can’t find child care ― for after school, for younger kids, for kids who get sick ― will still be at risk of losing employment.

Monday’s missive points to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that urges schools and businesses to “implement flexible sick leave policies and practices that enable staff to stay home when they are sick, have been exposed, or caring for someone who is sick.”

The number of coronavirus cases in the United States is rising rapidly in both urban and rural parts of the country. On Sunday, Dr. Deborah Birx, the physician leading the White House’s pandemic response, warned that the virus was “extraordinarily widespread.” Still, the White House has supported reopening schools for this academic year, which has already begun in many places. President Donald Trump baselessly tweeted Monday that the uptick in cases was just due to increased testing and demanded that officials “Open the Schools!”

The CDC itself has cautioned against full in-person education at both K-12 and college levels, saying it would be the “highest risk.” Trump publicly rejected CDC guidance on schools in early July, calling it “impractical.

The health professionals who signed on to Monday’s letter argue that paid leave is a necessary safety net if schools are to reopen.

“As a public health professional and parent, I know that expanded paid leave is critical to the safe and equitable reopening of schools,” Solange Gould, co-director of the public health group Human Impact Partners and a signer of the letter, told HuffPost. “Paid leave can ensure financial security for families and allow parents, teachers, and school staff to care for themselves and their families while stopping the spread of COVID-19.”

The letter cites a CDC study estimating that an additional 5 million people contracted the H1N1 virus in 2009 because of a lack of policies like paid sick leave.

Expanding paid leave policy would ultimately be up to Congress. Lawmakers and top White House officials are currently negotiating another pandemic relief package, as several of the early aid measures have already expired. Expanded federal unemployment benefits ran out at the end of July as did the federal moratorium on evictions, leaving tens of millions in financial distress. House Democrats passed a bill extending the unemployment aid through 2021, but Senate Republicans have refused to sign on to the full measure.

Universal paid leave has not been at the center of the latest negotiations. The United States remains the only high-income nation without a mandate for paid leave. As HuffPost’s Emily Peck reported, Republicans carved out exemptions for big corporations as well as the health care industry in the Families First package, leaving up to 106 million workers not covered by the emergency leave policy.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has shown no interest in addressing the policy again, even as more businesses and schools reopen.