The coronavirus and paid sick leave

Posted on April 3, 2020 by Sonoma Valley Sun

The global coronavirus pandemic has walloped California, and Governor Gavin Newsom has ordered all 40 million residents to ‘shelter in place’ except for travel to purchase groceries and prescription drugs. He also urged Californians to practice ‘social distancing’ from non-family population members. The governor banned large public gatherings and ordered all schools and non-essential businesses to close. The legislature appropriated $1 billion to fight the deadly virus. 


Public health and infectious disease experts cannot foresee the development of a successful vaccine for another 18-24 months. Yet these experts suggest that the experiences of other countries that the virus first hit hard—including China, South Korea, and Italy—point to a successful public health strategy, which includes early and widespread testing; closing schools and non-essential businesses; two-week quarantine for those exposed to infected individuals; and isolation for people testing positive can greatly slow the spread of the highly contagious disease and prevent overburdening hospitals and the public health infrastructure. 


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 29 percent of the workforce can work remotely, however. Consequently, paid sick leave is necessary for those who must work away from home; and those who are quarantined, isolated, caring for ill family members or children, and health care workers exposed to the virus.  Paid sick leave is, therefore, critical for the effective implementation of a comprehensive ‘shelter in place’ strategy to curb the pandemic. 


The United States and Japan are the only advanced industrial nations that do not guarantee some form of universal paid sick leave for short-term illness. 

Paid Sick Leave and Low-Wage Workers


According to the Economic Policy Institute, 90 percent of the highest-earning private-sector workers are more likely to work from home and have access to paid sick leave, but seven in ten low-wage workers do not get paid sick leave. Nearly one-quarter of all workers–including two of three food service and one in three retail workers–receive no paid sick leave whatsoever. Only 25 percent of private-sector workers receive at least ten paid sick days annually after twenty years’ service. 


Many of the low-wage workers who lack paid sick leave—home health care, nursing home, retail, janitorial, pharmacy, gas station, grocery, and food service workers—provide essential front-line services. They are constantly at risk of exposure to the coronavirus and other infectious diseases due to frequent public contacts.


The federal relief package recently approved to address the pandemic does provide ten paid sick days for workers affected by the corona crisis (the incubation period for the virus is up to two weeks) and 12 weeks for parents who must care for children at home when schools close. Federal paid sick leave is temporary and expires on December 31st. Businesses can also receive a payroll tax credit to offset the costs of paid sick leave. 


Holes in the Federal Emergency Legislation


But, the federal legislation includes gigantic loopholes. Companies with more than 500 workers (McDonald’s, Marriott, Exon, Chase Manhattan, and Wal-Mart) are exempted—and firms with less than 50 employees can apply for a hardship exemption. According to the Washington Post, only 20 percent of the entire workforce is covered by the new federal paid sick leave policy.


Big businesses, supported by the Trump administration, blocked a more expansive temporary paid sick leave policy for the coronavirus crisis along with the Democrats’ proposal for permanent paid sick leave. 


State and Local Paid Sick Leave Laws


As an alternative to the limited federal legislation, states and local jurisdictions can enact paid sick leave: 13 states—including California that approved three paid sick days for all workers in 2015–and 22 cities, including San Francisco, Emeryville, Oakland, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and San Diego, now mandate universal paid sick leave. In Oakland, workers at firms with less than ten employees can earn up to five days of paid sick leave, and employees of large firms can accrue nine days paid sick leave per year. Unused paid sick leave is capped but can carry over to the following year. 


The State of New York just approved emergency paid sick leave for most residents who are under mandatory quarantine or isolation orders, or for the care of infected family members and children. Employees of large firms with more than 100 workers and public agencies of any size receive an immediate 14 days paid sick leave. Employees of medium-sized firms with 10 to 99 employees are entitled to five paid sick days, and access to special paid family leave and short-term disability. Small businesses must minimally grant unpaid sick leave to employees. All New York residents are guaranteed job protection during a mandated quarantine order.  


Governor Newsom and the legislature should now enact legislation comparable to New York, providing emergency 14 day paid sick days for Californians affected by the coronavirus––but our state and local elected officials should go much further and make paid sick leave permanent. The virus may be contained in the next several months, but experts warn it could continue to circulate, causing new outbreaks over a year or more. Paid sick leave also is needed to address other infectious diseases such as influenza, afflicting 35 million and responsible for 34,500 deaths in 2018-2019 and norovirus–a significant cause of food poisoning affecting 20 million Americans each year. 


Universal Paid Sick Leave for All


All workers need paid sick leave that employees accrued annually (usually one hour earned for every 30 hours worked for both full-time and part-time workers) is good for business, workers, consumers, and public health. The National Partnership for Women and Families has summarized peer-reviewed and academic studies about state and local paid sick leave policy: 


+ Workers who lack paid sick leave are 1.5 times more likely to spread a contagious illness like flu or viral infections, and more likely to expose co-workers to the flu or colds than those with paid sick;


+ 60 percent of food service workers reported working while sick and nearly half did so because they lacked paid sick days; 


+ Sick food service workers are involved with nearly half of all restaurant-related and foodborne illness outbreaks;


+ Workers with paid sick days recover more quickly from illnesses than those without, and employees lacking paid sick leave are more likely to prolong illnesses by working when sick;


+ Local jurisdictions with paid sick leave experience lower influenza rates than those without; 


+ Employees without paid sick leave are twice as likely to send their ill child to school, compared to working parents with paid sick days;


+ Job turnover is lower for workers with paid sick leave, saving employers the cost of employee hiring and training and yielding increased worker productivity and a higher quality of services;


+Connecticut was the first state to enact universal paid sick leave in 2011 and the cost to employers was less than 0.4 percent of annual sales revenue. San Francisco enacted paid sick leave in 2006, and three years later, more than two-thirds of employers expressed support for the policy.


Santa Rosa, the County of Sonoma, and other local jurisdictions should consider a permanent paid sick leave policy like the City of Oakland – but add for large employers, 14 additional paid sick days during a public health crisis if the state does not. 


The coronavirus crisis has revealed the lowering of labor standards, the shredding of social safety net protections, and the downsizing of the public health infrastructure since the 1970s. Paid sick leave is an essential part of a progressive agenda to address the coronavirus crisis and restore economic and social security for American workers.


— Martin J. Bennett, Instructor Emeritus of History at Santa Rosa Junior College and a Research and Policy Analyst for UNITE HERE 2850. 


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