Republican arguments against laws that guarantee paid leave for workers often hinge on the notion that the policy would damage small-business owners, the backbone of our society. But what happens if you ask the small-business owners what they want? A new survey comfortably debunks the myth: Almost two-thirds of small-business owners support a national policy for paid medical and family leave.
“A super majority of small-business owners do support—have continued to support—a national paid-leave policy,” says Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All, the nonprofit that conducted the survey. The results appear to conflict with the widely held public perception that small businesses may be opposed to the policy, which would require businesses to give paid days off to workers for things like illness, bereavement, or parental leave. For many reasons, Huckelbridge says, the reverse is true. She contends that a paid-leave policy can help small businesses stay competitive and sturdy their bottom lines. “It helps with productivity and performance and profitability,” she says. “It makes for a happier worker, and there’s less turnover.”
Paid Leave for All started in December by bringing together various groups that had been advocating for a national leave policy, to align their goals and resources. The organization partnered with Main Street Alliance, a network of small-business owners that aims to give that community a voice on public policy issues. The survey respondents consist of 600 owners of businesses with up to 49 employees; the poll also deliberately over-samples racial minorities, by including 100 Black business owners and 100 Latino, Asian American, or Pacific Islander owners. About half (48%) of the respondents say they do not currently provide any type of sick, family, or medical leave.
From a public health standpoint, the coronavirus crisis has reinforced the advantages of—and dire need for—policy around this issue. Sick employees who feel they have to work while carrying the virus make for an unsafe workplace, where coworkers and customers could be exposed to viral particles. Studies have shown that infection numbers can be exacerbated by the lack of paid leave. The U.S., which has consistently had the world’s highest number of COVID-19 cases, is one of the very few developed countries that doesn’t have these policies in place. “This pandemic has really crystallized for people how important this policy is, and how incredibly behind we are as a country,” Huckelbridge says. When survey participants were presented information about paid leave curbing COVID-19 transmissions, support rose by another five points, to 69% in favor and just 18% opposed.
In March, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which required employers to provide emergency paid sick leave, in most cases two weeks for people directly affected by COVID-19 infection, plus an additional up to 10 weeks of longer family or medical leave for ongoing coronavirus-related problems. But it exempted businesses with more than 500 employees, many of which employ the essential workers most at risk of infection. While the Democratic-controlled House has attempted to close those loopholes, the Senate has not taken up the bill.
Instead, the Senate has concentrated on passing business immunity legislation, allowing companies to be shielded from employee-filed lawsuits related to the spread of COVID-19. But the survey shows that small-business owners prefer a paid-leave policy over liability protections by almost a 2-to-1 margin, with 37% in favor of paid leave and 20% in favor of liability shields. (The survey also finds that a majority of Republican participants are in favor of paid leave, 55% to 33%.)
Throughout her years of work, Huckelbridge has seen polling consistently reflect support for paid leave. “It doesn’t surprise me, but I think it will surprise most people,” she says. “It goes against what the opposition has been framing public perceptions to be.” Part of the importance of doing this work, then, is “to lift up the actual voices of small-business owners, and make sure that they’re not being spoken for by politicians who may not be representing their interests.”
The organization wants to see the government close the loopholes to allow emergency protections for all. But the ultimate goal has always been a long-term, permanent national paid-leave policy: at least 12 weeks of medical and family leave, with the guarantee of job security, so “it’s truly paid leave and not just severance,” Huckelbridge says. The law would have to ensure a livable wage replacement, too. Among those respondents who say they offer leave to employees, 52% offer full pay, 25% quarter pay, and 9% no pay at all.
“Any one of us can be one diagnosis away from a crisis at any time,” Huckelbridge says, “but this is more true now than ever. We are only as protected as the most vulnerable workers that we interact with.”