With confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, it’s time for a quick and immediate response. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), introduced the Paid Sick Days for Public Health Emergencies and Personal Family Care Act to address both the immediate and the ongoing need for paid sick days. This bill is a critical component of the government’s response to the COVID-19, also referred to as Coronavirus, pandemic. By guaranteeing fourteen paid sick days to everyone, the bill ensures that people can take the time they need for testing and quarantines without sacrificing their financial security and wellbeing. It will help people stay home confidently, without worrying about their paycheck or job, thus slowing the spread of the virus and saving lives. It will also allow parents to stay home with their children if schools or child care centers close for public health reasons. And, by building on the Healthy Families Act, the bill addresses the everyday needs of millions of Americans, particularly low-wage workers who have few—if any—financial or safety protections.
The potential spread of coronavirus shines a light on the ways in which people with power prioritize themselves and their networks. In turn, they fail to prioritize the people who’ve been denied the privileges of wealth and who’ve faced oppression and discrimination, making it harder to care for themselves, their families, and their communities. Inadequate policies to prevent the spread of this virus in every community are the result of sexist and racist cultural norms and economic inequalities that reinforce stereotypical images and social standings for Black women and other women of color groups. These “cultural norms” of who provides care and who needs or deserves workplace benefits can be traced back to the enslavement and subjugation of Black, immigrant and Native women, and have persisted throughout history. For example, the assumption that underpaid Black and immigrant nannies should hold the responsibility of caring for the sick children of white wealthy women and families, often to the detriment of their own children and families, has made it harder to pass comprehensive, national paid sick days laws.
The extensive holes in our public infrastructure—from the lack of any nationwide paid sick days or paid family and medical leave policy, to no universal child care or health care hurt those who already face the greatest barriers to equity and well-being. As Claire Cain Miller, Sarah Kliff, and Margot Sanger-Katz put it in the New York Times: “Unequal access to precautionary measures cuts along the same lines that divide the United States in other ways: income, education and race.” Congress has an opportunity to not only address the current public health emergency, but also put us on a path to greater equity.
Today, the lack of a national paid sick days policy means that people have to be “lucky” enough to live in the right state, county, or city, have the right job or boss, or be classified correctly as an employee in order to be able to care for themselves and their family members. The bill introduced by Representative Rosa DeLauro and Senator Patty Murray will address this by establishing a national paid sick days policy for all workers. In particular, by addressing both the current emergency and the everyday needs, and by including all employees regardless of the size of their employer or type of job, it is an inclusive, equitable approach to the current crisis.
The current imbalance in paid sick day policies hurts low-income communities and communities of color the most. The imbalance in who has paid sick days breaks down based on income, race, and sector, among other lines. In the private sector, those who are paid the most are most likely to have paid sick days. Ninety percent of workers in the top earnings quartile have paid sick days, while less than half—47 percent in the lowest quartile—have paid sick days; and comparing the top 10 percent and bottom 10 percent of earners, it’s 93 percent versus 30 percent. Access to paid sick days from employers also breaks down along racial lines. Data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that more than half of Latinx workers and 38 percent of Black workers do not receive paid sick days from their employers. These disparities make it even more imperative that we develop solutions that proactively include all workers.
Paid sick day policies must include all workers. All workers deserve the right to care for themselves and their families when it comes to medical issues. Excluding people because of the size of their employer, or job type, goes against that basic principle. This bill eliminates the threshold of excluding employers with fewer than 15 employers that leaves too many workers without paid sick days, including many domestic workers—primarily, the women of color and immigrant women who currently are on the frontlines of care for seniors, people with chronic illnesses, and children.
Ensuring that the definition of who is eligible is comprehensive and that everyone is able to actually access their benefits or rights is equally important. For example, this bill ensures that, for emergencies, the waiting period is lifted so that people can start taking paid sick days from their first day on the job in light of COVID-19. It also allows people who need multiple paid sick days to forgo a doctors note and allows people to take paid sick days for school and child care closings, quarantines, and other public health emergency-related reasons to ensure that people can take it as they need it.
The people most at risk of spreading illness are least likely to have paid sick days. Workers serving food in restaurants and those caring for our children and aging parents are among those least likely to have paid sick days. More than four in five restaurant workers (81 percent) don’t have a single paid sick day from their employer. Three-fourths of personal care and service workers, including child care workers, lack paid sick days from their employers. Most domestic workers (82 percent)—home care workers, nannies, and house cleaners, most of whom are women of color and immigrant women—do not have paid sick leave. Given the low wages in these industries, even one day without work can severely limit these workers’ ability to meet financial obligations and support their families.
Paid sick days are essential for public health, especially public health emergencies. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is recommending that, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, people stay home from work if they feel sick. However, the people who don’t have paid sick days are the least likely to be able to stay home. Prior research has shown that people without paid sick days are 1.5 times more likely than those with paid sick days to report going to work with a contagious illness. People without paid sick days also have trouble accessing medical care. People without sick days have been found to be three times more likely to go without medical care than people with paid sick days. And, people need paid sick days in order to care for their loved ones, but without the policy, people are 1.6 times more likely to go without medical care for their families. We need to learn from past mistakes. In 2009, during the H1N1 flu pandemic, researchers estimated that 5 million cases of the flu would have been prevented if the United States had a national paid sick time policy at the time. Today’s COVID-19 public health emergency demonstrates just how important it is to have both paid sick days and medical care so that people can care for themselves and their families in order to stop the spread of disease within our communities.
Paid sick days contribute to the economic security for many families. Income inequality in the United States has been growing steadily, including an increasing difference in median income between Black and white Americans. Many Black Americans face systemic barriers to obtaining good jobs that will provide them with the wages and benefits they need for economic security. Therefore, the lack of paid sick days policies hurts lower income families and communities of color more. Families without paid sick days often struggle to pay for the basics when illness strikes. Without paid sick days, even a few days of lost pay can mean losing an entire month’s worth of groceries, utilities, or health care expenses for the typical family. That’s why so many people go to work sick. In addition to the lost earnings, they also fear workplace discipline or losing their jobs. Nearly one in four workers has reported either losing a job or being threatened with job loss for needing to take a sick day.
Paid sick day policies are working in states and localities. Today, thirteen states and nineteen localities have paid sick day laws in place. People who work in those states are able to take time for their own and their families’ medical care needs—from prevention to recovery. The number of people who can access paid sick days—no matter who they are—has increased since states and localities started adopting these laws. New research shows that paid sick day policies increase paid sick days coverage by 13 percentage points. In addition, the study finds that paid sick days can improve the well-being of employers and employees, even when the public health benefits are not taken into account. Given what’s at stake today in terms of public health, it’s time to learn from these state policies and ensure that all people in need of paid sick days for the current emergency and beyond can get them.
Guaranteeing paid sick days for all workers is only one of many crucial supports that families need today. We also need to prioritize protecting workers through universal health care that is affordable, available to all people, and of the highest quality; paid family and medical leave; the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and all of the other ways that we can build up our public health and worker protection infrastructure to find equitable solutions for achieving greater health and wellbeing.