What would you do if you had to choose between self-quarantining or putting food on the table for your children? That’s the question many Americans could find themselves asking in the weeks and months ahead if the coronavirus continues its spread.
While federal law does require companies to offer unpaid sick leave for up to 12 weeks for certain medial situations, America does not have a comprehensive federal paid sick leave law that guarantees employees the right to take sick days and still receive payment for their time off under any circumstances.
During the best of times that could leave sick Americans having to choose between taking the time they need to recover or bringing in money to pay the bills. But in times of a global public health emergency where working when being sick means you can spread a potentially fatal illness to your work colleagues, a lack of a comprehensive federal paid sick leave law is an outright danger to public health.
As MarketWatch reports, individual companies have stepped in where the federal government will not. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, workers who have the luxury of paid sick days tend to be high-wage earners working white-collar jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that while 93% of the highest-wage earners had access to paid sick leave, just 30% of the lowest-wage earners did so as well.
It gets worse: Only 58% of workers in services occupations had paid sick leave in 2019. Service occupations are among the least likely to be able to work remotely from home, too. Needless to say, full-time workers are more likely to get paid sick days that part-time workers are, which could leave women more vulnerable as they make up the majority of part-time workers.
But states and cities are increasingly stepping in where the federal government will not. Zenefits has a roundup of states and cities that have laws on the books requiring companies to offer paid sick days. Still, those piecemeal laws won’t help the majority of Americans who have no paid sick leave guaranteed by an all-encompassing law.
In the lack of legislation, even the United States Surgeon General can do little more than try to appeal to the goodwill of employers, asking them to be rational and provide flexible and paid sick leave for the good of public health.
Americans: if you are sick with fever/cough/ flu symptoms, please don’t go to work!
Employers: PLEASE understand giving your employees flexibility and (paid) sick leave will save you money in the long run- it’s much cheaper than shutting down because everyone else gets sick!
— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) March 8, 2020
Until that happens, many workers in America will probably have no choice but to continue to choose to go into work for the good of their families. As Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told MarketWatch, “There’s a reason why people are going to work when they or their kids are sick, if they don’t have paid sick days. They have to put food on the table and a roof over their head.”