Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) tried to speed the measure up for a vote on the Senate floor through a procedural maneuver, but an objection from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) prevented the bill from bypassing the Republican-controlled health committee.
Murray noted that many people who don’t have paid leave through their jobs will inevitably miss work due to being sick or quarantined in the coming weeks. She argued that guaranteed paid leave was important both for public health and the good of the broader economy.
“For many of our workers ― restaurant workers, truck drivers, service industry workers ― they may not have an option to take a day off without losing their pay or losing their job,” Murray said. “That’s not a choice we should be asking anyone to make in the United States in the 21st century.”
Alexander said that paid sick leave is a “good idea.” But if lawmakers want to require employers to provide it, then the federal government should have to foot the bill, he argued.
“Employees are struggling, our employers are struggling, and it’s not a cure for the coronavirus to put a big new expensive federal mandate on employers who are struggling in the middle of this matter,” Alexander said.
Although the bill is bottled up for now, Democrats could try to attach the measure to another legislative package aimed at dealing with the virus.
Democrats proposed the emergency legislation in both chambers last week. The bill sponsored by Murray in the Senate and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) in the House would immediately guarantee workers 14 days of paid sick leave in the event of a public health emergency like the current one. Workers would separately accrue up to seven sick days over the course of a year under the bill.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised people stay home from work if they exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Under the Democratic bill, workers could use the 14 emergency sick days if their workplace or their child’s school is closed, or if they or a family member ends up quarantined.
Many states already have sick leave mandates on the books, including California and Murray’s home state of Washington, both of which have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus. But unlike in most other developed countries, there is no federal law requiring employers to give workers paid time off when they’re sick.
The outbreak has brought unprecedented public attention to the lack of a mandate in the U.S. Seventy-three percent of private sector workers have paid sick leave, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the remaining 27% who don’t have it, many are concentrated in lower-wage service jobs like retail and fast food.
“For many of our workers ... they may not have an option to take a day off without losing their pay or losing their job.”
Some companies have moved to institute more generous policies amid the criticism stirred up by the coronavirus emergency. Darden Restaurants, which owns the Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse chains, recently announced that all its hourly employees would now start accruing sick leave. The company has previously opposed legislative mandates on sick days.
Democrats have been trying to pass sick leave measures for years and have succeeded in the House. But the GOP majority in the Senate has prevented such bills from coming up for a vote, arguing that small businesses cannot withstand the cost increases of sick leave.
Murray’s emergency bill was all but certain to die in the Senate, but the measure still afforded Democrats an opportunity to put Republicans on the record in opposing it. Polling shows that the idea of a sick leave mandate tends to be extremely popular, with even a strong majority of Republican voters supporting it.
This post has been updated with Alexander’s remarks.