Coronavirus Has Shed Light on the Urgent Need for All Workers to Have Access to Paid Leave

By Georges C. Benjamin, MD, and Debra L. Ness

As people across the country are being advised — and in many places mandated — to stay home and practice social distancing to help reign in the spread of the novel coronavirus, fear and anxiety are ramping up for the millions of workers who don’t have paid sick leave. They are faced with a dangerous, and in many cases, costly ultimatum: stay home and risk losing their pay or even their job, or go to work and put themselves, family members and the public at risk.

It is in the best interest of our public health and our economy to ensure anyone, regardless of their income level, position or industry, has the ability to care for themselves or a family member.

This is not only a public health issue — it is an equity issue. Seven in 10 workers with the lowest-incomes cannot earn a single paid sick day. Black and Latinx workers are also less likely than white or Asian American workers to report having any workplace leave benefits. The majority of people working in industries that deliver critical services that keep our economy moving — like retail and other service workers — are among the least likely to have paid sick leave even though they interact closely with the public.

The good news is that we have seen companies like Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and others step up to guarantee paid sick leave to hourly workers who are forced to take time off work — either due to quarantines or school or office closures. And Darden, the parent company of Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse franchises, announced a permanent change to its policy and will be offering paid sick leave benefits to all its hourly employees. While these companies should be commended for doing the right thing, we need a comprehensive federal solution that includes all workers.

We applaud leaders in Congress for taking swift action and advancing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. While the bill will provide critical relief to many, Republicans in Congress severely weakened the proposals during negotiations, leaving out millions of working people, narrowing the scope of the paid leave and paid sick days protections and adding exemptions for businesses.

On Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives released its latest recovery package that ensures more of the most vulnerable U.S. workers are able to receive emergency paid sick days and paid leave protections in the government’s emergency coronavirus response. Unfortunately, the bipartisan Senate bill strips out the provisions that would have filled the gaps in the second emergency package.

To address the gaping holes that left too many workers without relief, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Patty Murray and Rep. Rosa DeLauro introduced the PAID Leave Act (Providing Americans Insured Days of Leave Act). This comprehensive paid sick days and paid family and medical leave bill will provide much-needed support to workers now and would go further to establish national paid sick days and paid leave standards.

This pandemic is shining a light on a significant economic equity and public health issue that has long impacted workers and their families.

As members of Congress consider the next relief package, they must prioritize the needs of families and communities. The current proposal from Senate Republicans includes bailouts for a number of industries but doesn’t address the challenges that working people are facing as they take time away from work to care for themselves or a family member. We urge Congress to do the right thing and include comprehensive paid sick days and paid family and medical leave provisions in the third relief package.

Our nation is facing uncertain times ahead. However, we know that the need for time to care remains universal, with or without a pandemic. Whether it’s COVID-19, a common cold or the unexpected happens — sooner or later, every one of us will face the need to take leave from work. It’s time to end this devastating inequity and provide all workers access to paid sick days and paid leave.

Debra L. Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, an organization that works to improve the lives of women and families by achieving equality for all women.

Georges C. Benjamin, MD is Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, which champions the health of all people and all communities.

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