By Sabrina Adler
COVID-19 has urgently demonstrated that everyone needs to live in safe and healthy communities. The people most affected by COVID-19 are communities of color, people with low income, immigrants, and other underserved groups. These groups are most vulnerable in part because of existing laws and policies that affect the fundamental drivers of health inequities. Communities and local governments that take steps to ensure health, safety, housing, food, and economic stability for all of their residents will be helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and laying the groundwork for health equity and prosperity for future generations.
To help communities and local governments strengthen their response to COVID-19 and advance health equity, we’re publishing a blog series about policies that they can enact right away. This post is the fourth in the series.
Advocates have been pushing for paid leave policies at local, state, and federal levels for years, often with mixed results. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief the fact that, as a nation, we have done too little too late to protect workers — particularly the most vulnerable workers — from income loss due to illness. According to the 2019 National Compensation Survey, almost one quarter of the US workforce (34 million people) lacks access to paid sick time.
Even more troubling, data show that while more than 90% of workers in the top quarter of earnings have access to paid sick leave, only 51% in the lowest quarter and 31% in the bottom tenth have that benefit. When employees lack access to paid sick leave, they are forced to choose between working while sick, which is detrimental to their own health and the health of their community, or losing much-needed income, which can also be detrimental to their health.
As of early 2020, 12 states had enacted policies that require employers to provide paid sick leave. A number of localities, including Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Seattle, likewise have paid sick leave laws. In contrast, 22 states explicitly preempt, or prohibit, localities from enacting requirements related to paid sick time. The vast majority of those states have not set state-level requirements, leaving a policy vacuum.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which guarantees emergency paid time off for a variety of circumstances related to COVID-19, including an employee’s own illness, quarantine requirements, and caring for children whose school or day care is closed. While this law provides some relief, it is a temporary and incomplete solution, covering only the period from April 1 to December 31, 2020. And the law does not cover all workers. Some health care workers and first responders are not covered. Private employers with more than 500 employees are exempted, and businesses with 50 or fewer employees can opt out of offering some of the benefits under certain circumstances.
Where they are not preempted, localities can take this opportunity to fill the gaps in federal and state laws on paid leave related to COVID-19. Localities can also design paid sick leave policies that will provide long-term protection to all workers and to the community more broadly, even after the COVID-19 crisis has waned. A Better Balance provides various model policies that localities can adapt, as well as general information on paid sick leave policies and specific information related to COVID-19.
Please stay tuned for the next installment in this series, which will discuss repealing nuisance policies that have inequitable consequences.