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A key to returning to normal is paid sick leave, Democrats say


Gov. Gavin Newsom of California recently signed legislation to extend COVID paid sick leave for workers. About 20 percent of American workers have none, and they are likely to have low incomes.

By Claire Cain Miller


The omicron wave hammered the American workforce, sending more people home sick than at any other point in the pandemic. Yet unlike in 2020, there is no federally required paid sick leave for workers — and none at all for the one-fifth of workers who don’t receive it from their employers.


Now, as omicron recedes and many restrictions are being lifted, and as more of the country begins to treat COVID-19 as an unavoidable part of life, some Democratic lawmakers and others are trying to revive paid leave for COVID-19-related reasons.


In January, 2.3% of the American workforce was home sick, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — three times that of a typical pre-pandemic month.


The disruptions have continued: In the last week of January and first week of February, 12.8 million Americans did not work because they had COVID-19 or were caring for someone who did, or because their child’s school or day care was closed, a census survey found. That accounted for 21% of all adults who were not working and not retired. Another 3 million people didn’t work because they were concerned about getting or spreading the virus.


Whether they got paid sick leave and whether their jobs were protected depended on where they lived and worked.


“As we enter the endemic phase of COVID, it’s a critical tool in returning to normal,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow for paid-leave policy and strategy at New America, a left-leaning policy group.


The main idea Democrats are pursuing now is to include a new round of COVID-19 paid sick leave in the spending bill to fund the government, the deadline for which has been extended to March 11. They are also considering a stand-alone paid sick leave bill, or the inclusion of paid leave in a COVID-19 relief package for businesses.


“We are exploring every possible path to make progress on paid leave this Congress,” Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said in a statement this month, and the White House supports those efforts.


Yet the United States remains one of 11 countries, and the only rich country, with no federal paid sick leave. During the pandemic, most wealthy nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development temporarily expanded their sick leave to cover people in quarantine and self-employed workers, and to relieve employers from paying for sick leave themselves.


March 2020, the start of the pandemic, was the first time the United States offered comprehensive paid leave. The program expired in December that year. It gave two weeks to workers who were sick or needed to care for someone who was, and 12 weeks to care for children whose schools were closed. Employers were fully reimbursed in the form of a payroll tax credit.


The leave excluded more than half of private-sector workers, including those at companies with more than 500 workers and at many small businesses. Even so, there was evidence that it slowed the spread of COVID-19.


To cope with the pandemic, some states, including New York and New Jersey, added emergency paid leave for COVID-19. Oregon and others expanded their paid sick leave to include new needs, such as getting vaccinated or caring for children whose schools were closed. This month, California passed a law mandating that employers of more than 25 people provide 10 days of paid leave for COVID-19, retroactive to Jan. 1.


The pandemic also pushed some companies that didn’t have paid leave to give it permanently. Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, began offering five days of paid sick leave and two weeks of paid family or medical leave. But that is an anomaly, said Daniel Schneider, a professor of public policy at Harvard and a director of the Shift Project, a large continuing survey of service workers.


“For the hourly workers at large firms who we have been surveying for years now, sick leave has always been a rare commodity,” he said. “It really has not moved, despite a global pandemic.”


More common, even as omicron surged, was for some of the largest American employers to cut in half, to five days, the paid COVID-19 leave they had been offering workers. They did so after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Dec. 27 halved to five the recommended number of days that people with COVID-19 should isolate. Employers that shortened paid COVID-19 leave include Walmart, Amazon, Delta Air Lines, CVS and Walgreens.


In some cases, the companies offer additional leave options for people who remain sick after five days. Others, such as Walgreens, CVS and Kroger, the large grocery chain, give no paid sick time to workers who are unvaccinated without an approved exemption (at Kroger, vaccinated employees still receive 10 days of paid sick leave for COVID-19).


Christina Hayes, 34, is an on-call Delta gate agent in Michigan. When she was recently called to work, she declined. She has lupus, an autoimmune disease, and was worried about her health if she were exposed to people who returned to work while COVID-19 positive.


“It bothers me they would change that, because already at my job, it’s high risk for exposure to COVID,” she said.


Because she’s not working, Hayes, a single mother, says she is living off her savings, and skipping payments on things like car insurance.


“Money is really tight right now, so I’m just trying to figure out employment that is not so high-risk,” she said. She has a new question in job interviews, one she said she never asked before the pandemic: “When a job calls me, I ask, ‘Do you guys have paid leave; what do you offer?’”

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