There Is Still No Universal Paid Sick Leave In A Pandemic

Workers died because of this failing, and Senate Republicans aren't eager to fix the problem.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ( R-Ky.) conducts a news conference after the Senate Republican policy luncheon on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ( R-Ky.) conducts a news conference after the Senate Republican policy luncheon on Tuesday.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

We are months into this nightmare pandemic, and the United States still doesn’t have universal paid sick leave to protect Americans from contracting and transmitting a deadly virus.

Without this essential safety net, workers who were lauded as ‘essential’ over the past few months were treated as disposable. They were forced to toil in crowded factories, warehouses and meatpacking plants. The only other option was to go without a paycheck or a job during a time of historic unemployment. Many went without the proper protective gear. Workers got sick. Some died.

The U.S. is the only high-income nation in the world that does not mandate or provide sick leave to its workers. Plenty of advocates, economists, public health experts and journalists sounded the alarm about sick leave when the pandemic started. House Democrats tried to pass meaningful legislation in March. Senate Republicans and the Trump administration sabotaged their efforts.

Even now, with 140,000 dead and cases skyrocketing, with parents agonizing about their children going back to school, there is little sign that real universal sick leave will be part of the fourth stimulus package Congress is negotiating. Senate Republicans are expected to roll out a $1 trillion proposal later on Thursday, and it is not expected to include sick leave.

The paid sick leave issue is one of many failures by our leaders in this pandemic, but it’s a striking one. Sick leave is a simple benefit that is easy to understand and implement. It also does not cost employers very much. One of the cheapest benefits, sick pay costs a few cents per hour, per worker, according to Labor Department data.

“It’s egregious that we don’t have paid sick leave for workers in a pandemic. We know it’s effective in curbing transmissions,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, director of the advocacy group Paid Leave for All. “We can’t reopen public spaces, schools or the economy as a whole if we don’t have it.”

Republicans Ignored The Opportunity

Instead of making sure workers who are sick can stay home, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s priority is to stop workers from suing companies because they got sick at work. He’s worried about an epidemic ― of lawsuits.

Republicans are trying to whittle down unemployment benefits to force people back to work in one of the worst job markets in decades.

“It’s egregious that we don’t have paid sick leave for workers in a pandemic. We know it’s effective in curbing transmissions.”

- Dawn Huckelbridge, director of the advocacy group Paid Leave for All

Yet, the evidence for the need for paid leave is clear. The lack of paid sick leave likely caused an additional 5 million cases of H1N1 flu during the 2009 epidemic, according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2012. A separate study found that flu rates are 11% lower in states that guarantee sick leave.

Numbers like this could be even more significant for COVID-19, a far deadlier disease. But it will take time for researchers to dig into the specifics of how many people got sick and died because of lack of access to sick leave.

Vulnerable Workers Got Sick

Anecdotally, we already know that vulnerable workers got sick during this pandemic because they had no choice but to come to work.

There were COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants, at prisons, in giant warehouses and among farmworkers. These were places where employees had no choice but to keep showing up to work during this crisis.

Workers at a poultry plant in Delaware, labeled “essential” by the president, were forced back to work while the virus swept through the factory, Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker. In New York City, while the professional classes hunkered down at home, grocery store clerks, delivery workers and plenty of other essential workers kept going to work. Many did not have the option of sick leave, and they disproportionately fell ill.

At a prison in Ohio, correctional officers who tested positive for COVID-19 went back to work before they recovered, HuffPost’s Jessica Schulberg reported. They ran out of their 40 hours of sick time — a meager amount and far less than workers need to stay healthy or recover from COVID-19.

At the meatpacking plants, workers were offered attendance bonuses to keep coming in. Other companies offered staffers extra pay to come into work and paid them almost nothing if they needed to stay home.

Perhaps the most shameful part about the lack of sick leave in this country is the brutal inequality. Ninety-percent of high-income workers — the people safely working at home — have paid sick leave, according to Labor Department data. For workers with low incomes, that number is 30%.

And even those low-wage earners who nominally have paid leave don’t get enough days, and for some, managers effectively bar them from taking that time off. The actual take-up rate is far lower. Only 8% of grocery store workers could get the time off needed to quarantine.

Democrats Tried To Make It Happen

In March, the House passed comprehensive paid sick leave ― an emergency policy offering two weeks of sick time, paid by employers who would receive tax credits, that would last through 2020. Those sick at home would get their full pay, up to $511 a day.

But Senate Republicans, under pressure from the White House and business interests, blew huge holes in the policy. Instead of covering all workers, anyone employed by a company with more than 500 workers were left out. Very small companies also got big exemptions.

Even more despicable was that when the law finally passed, Eugene Scalia’s Labor Department watered it down further ― carving out big exemptions for “health care workers,” which they defined as anyone working in the health care industry. That meant janitors in hospitals and cashiers in drugstores didn’t have access to paid sick time.

Ultimately, up to 106 million people, or 83% of working people, were left out of the emergency paid leave proposal in the coronavirus bill, according to an analysis from the National Partnership for Women.

The workers left out were disproportionately women and people of color — who are overrepresented in front-line jobs where they are most at risk of getting sick. Women make up 64% of the workers in all the front-line industries, according to the Partnership — think grocery store workers, health care workers, and child care workers.

Democrats in the House took another shot in May, passing a $3 trillion relief bill, which would close the loopholes in the March bill and extend paid sick leave another year.

Republicans in the Senate ignored it, and McConnell has shown no sign of wanting to include paid sick leave provisions in this fourth bill.

Advocates and Democrats are continuing to push.

On Thursday, Democratic Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) will join Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and the National Education Association president, as well as advocates from Paid Leave for All in calling on McConnell to pass paid sick leave, as well as family leave in the next bill.

They remain hopeful.

“People want to go back to work. We want them to stay home if they’re sick. [Paid leave] is the only way to make sure it happens,” Murray told HuffPost on Thursday. “The Republicans are saying ‘no,’ and so that’s where we are.”

“Don’t give up on Nancy Pelosi,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) told HuffPost. “If I just had to listen to what Mitch McConnell wants in his bill, I’d be pretty depressed. It is a negotiation.”

Beyer is vice chair of the Democratic side of the Joint Economic Committee, which put out a comprehensive report on paid leave this week highlighting the fact that the United States stands alone in not offering the benefit.

“How could we be the richest country in the history of mankind and lag behind every other country?” Beyer asked. “Just from a business perspective, it doesn’t make any sense. The last thing you want is your workers coming into work sick.”

Igor Bobic contributed reporting.

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