workers paid leave
Photo courtesy of Workers Defense Project and Working Texans for Paid Sick Time

Equal Voice

Workers Always Needed Paid Leave. It Took a Pandemic to Show the U.S.

April 6, 2020

By Terry Collins

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the need to extend broad paid leave to workers clear, and that clarity could spark a new conversation and push to extend leave permanently to more workers.

Three weeks ago, Sarah Jane Glynn testified before a congressional labor committee in Washington, D.C., on the urgent need to improve paid sick leave and family and medical leave for workers in the United States.

Glynn, a senior fellow for the think-tank Center for American Progress, says that plea seems like “a lifetime ago” now, especially in the wake of the massive coronavirus pandemic that has swept across the globe and has created dire outcomes for Americans from all walks of life. This is particularly the case for low-wage workers, women and people of color, as the U.S. currently has the highest reported number of COVID-19 cases in the world – more than 347,000 and more than 10,300 deaths.

... If there is going to be any silver lining from this catastrophe, we need to rethink long and hard about our workplace policies.
Sarah Jane Glynn of the Center for American Progress

President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) on March 18. The act requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19, including being stuck at home, beginning April 1. But these benefits are only temporary.

The law gives all American businesses with fewer than 500 employees funds to provide paid leave, either for the employee’s own health needs or to care for family members. All employees are eligible for two weeks of paid sick time for reasons related to COVID-19. Employees with their employer for at least 30 days are eligible for up to an additional 10 weeks of paid family leave to care for a child under certain circumstances related to COVID-19.

Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees, as well as many health care providers, can be exempted from paying sick leave due to school closures or child care unavailability if the leave requirements jeopardize the viability of the business.

“There are definitely some things about this [act] that make lives better, and there are some holes that need to be fixed,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Glynn said the measures are reactionary, but she wonders if this could lead to a more robust long-term, permanent solution for paid and extended leave.

“This makes sense as this is an emergency to deal, and hopefully, it will have a short-term impact,” Glynn said. “But we also need to be forward-thinking and hope that if there is going to be any silver lining from this catastrophe, we need to rethink long and hard about our workplace policies.”

workers paid leave
Photo courtesy of Workers Defense Project and Working Texans for Paid Sick Time

Glynn added: “COVID-19 should not be the only reason we need to have paid sick days.”

For years, grassroots organizations have stood alongside low-wage workers and their families, demanding paid-leave rights. Democrats and the White House pushed for paid sick leave in the coronavirus response act because it allows sick or quarantined workers to stay home without losing their paycheck. Republicans expressed concerns about the cost to businesses, but finally agreed to a deal.

Meanwhile, many paid leave and extended leave bills, including the FAMILY Act, and the Advancing Support for Working Families Act, remain stuck in Congress.

“There’s been a lot of advocacy fighting for these rights on a national level,” EPI’s Gould said. “This isn’t a new issue.”

Before her testimony to Congress last month, Glynn and two colleagues at the Center for American Progress wrote that an estimated 32.5 million individuals – or 27 percent of private-sector workers – lack access to a single paid sick day to recover from an illness, such as COVID-19, or to care for a sick family member without losing their job or their paycheck.

Their report said low-income and service-sector workers – those who live paycheck-to-paycheck – are disproportionately women and Latinx workers, and are the least likely to have access to paid sick leave.

“There’s still a lot of people still being left out, including undocumented workers,” said Emily Timm, co-executive director of the Workers Defense Project. “Those workers who provide child care, house cleaners, very small employers, some who may work with informal arrangements, they are among those being left out.”

Timm’s organization, based in Austin, Texas, primarily works with low-income Latinx workers. In addition to Workers Defense Project’s platform, Timm said the nonprofit will launch an emergency mutual aid fund for those who won’t receive funds from the $2-trillion federal stimulus package Trump recently signed. Timm said they will seek donations and private support for the fund.

While the Families First Coronavirus Response Act could be a good first step to address paid sick leave coverage and unemployment insurance, many Black and Latinx workers may suffer because they don’t have the luxury to work from home and can’t afford to lose money because of shelter-in-place mandates.

Gould cites results from a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey released last year that said less than one in five Black workers and fewer than one in six Hispanic workers are able to work from home.

Glynn said that all Americans are affected by COVID-19, but “those who are more marginalized are going to feel the effects more than others.”

She hopes the act will start “an intense discussion and resolution” among advocates and lawmakers on paid sick leave and extended paid leave rights.

“I certainly don’t want to capitalize on this tragedy, but this is, unfortunately, highlighting why these policies are necessary,” Glynn said.

Gould takes a similar stance.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t have this basic labor standard,” Gould said. “These worker protections should be improved, and they shouldn’t go away whenever this pandemic does.”


Terry Collins is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared in Fortune, The Associated Press, Bloomberg Businessweek and CNET. Follow him on Twitter at @terryscollins. In 2019, he wrote the Equal Voice article, “The Nation’s Big Fight for the Right to Vote.” Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original Equal Voice stories can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

Workers Always Needed Paid Leave. It Took a Pandemic to Show the U.S.