In June, clothing retailer Raygun reopened its doors to the public. Raygun employs nearly 100 staffers across six different stores—but since reopening six months ago, there has been no known COVID-19 transmission among them. Just this week, an employee in Raygun’s shipping department learned that his mom had tested positive for COVID-19. He was immediately asked to depart the site and take paid leave. Even after he tested negative, the company took precautions to separate him from other employees. “We adjusted some schedules so he can come in after hours and do some shipping all by himself,” says Raygun founder Mike Draper. “It’s just this constant balance.”
For small businesses like Raygun, access to paid leave has been crucial, both to stay afloat financially and curb the transmission of COVID-19 in their workplaces. Raygun was already providing paid sick leave to its employees—both full-time and part-time workers—but the paid leave benefits secured by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which Congress passed in response to the pandemic back in March, far outstripped what the company could offer. The FFCRA promised two weeks of paid sick leave to full-time workers who contracted COVID-19 or were quarantining; parents and caregivers were eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid leave.
“If somebody is sick, you could say, ‘Oh, I allowed them to stay home. How magnanimous of me,'” Draper says. “Well, shit, if I’m working with that person, they could get me sick. If you want a healthy workforce, you have to keep people home.”
But the FFCRA’s paid leave provisions expired at the end of 2020—and as Congress was negotiating a new pandemic relief package over the last few months, one glaring omission was an extension of the paid leave mandate. The FFCRA was limited to begin with: Only companies with fewer than 500 employees were entitled to the paid leave benefits, thereby excluding more than half of all U.S. workers. The new $900 billion stimulus measure, which President Donald Trump signed into law last week, further erodes what little coverage was guaranteed by the FFCRA, by making it voluntary for companies to use their paid leave benefits.
A recent study published in Health Affairs concluded that the FFCRA helped prevent 400 cases of COVID-19 per day in each state.
The paid leave mandate has been a lifeline for Raygun and other small businesses attempting to weather the pandemic without dismissing workers who fall sick or get exposed to the virus. Low-wage workers are especially vulnerable, since a sizable portion of them are not entitled to any paid sick leave: While 87% of the top 10% of private-sector wage earners have paid sick days, only 27% of the bottom 10% of workers do, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
For working mothers like Tarin Laine, who is an attorney in New York, access to paid leave has empowered them to remain in the labor force. After Laine’s child care fell through earlier in the pandemic, she had no option but to juggle caring for her two young children with the demands of her full-time job. But when her husband had to return to work in person, Laine knew it would be impossible for her to handle her professional responsibilities and oversee remote schooling on her own. When she proposed the idea of going on leave or working part time, her employer told her about the paid leave mandate, which she wasn’t aware of.
“I’m very grateful to have had the option,” she says. “[Looking] back, I don’t even know how we were doing it. Sometimes I think my kids were being neglected because there’s just no way you can take care of young kids and work at the capacity that I was working and not have something suffer.” Through the FFCRA, Laine was able to take 12 weeks of paid leave, which meant she could tend to her children and work to arrange child care for when she returns to work later this month.
Without a paid leave mandate, workers are at the mercy of their employers. Still, advocates for national paid leave insist that the disparities laid bare by the pandemic and the passage of a paid leave bill, however flawed in execution, are openings to introduce more sweeping legislation. What’s more, President-elect Joe Biden has already expressed his support for a national paid leave policy, and advocates for such a program have made significant strides at the state level: Over the past two decades, nine states have introduced paid leave programs—the most recent being Colorado, which just passed an expansive paid leave program through a ballot measure and could be a model for other states.
In the meantime, a number of businesses have also introduced more robust paid leave policies. When PL+US, an advocacy group campaigning for national paid leave, was founded in 2016, one of its first initiatives was to compile a scorecard of paid leave policies for some of the country’s largest employers. “What we saw initially was not every company had a paid leave policy,” says Annie Sartor, a senior director at PL+US. “Most policies were really just parental leave, so not caregiving or other leave that people need. And it was very common then for companies to offer leave that was very unequal between types of employees.”
Since then, not only have leave policies become more common, they also have been expanded, Sartor says. Many workers continue to be shut out of corporate paid leave benefits, but Sartor says a number of companies have taken steps to address the issue. “There’s still inequity, and that is a problem that persists,” she says. “The gap has begun to shift, and the policies that are very unequal are less common, mostly because people have demanded access to paid leave.”
Starbucks, for example, rolled out paid leave for baristas. And amid the pandemic, Walmart and some other large employers that are exempt from the FFCRA paid leave provisions have introduced comparable policies for retail workers. Levi Strauss & Co., which introduced a paid family leave policy prior to the pandemic, has now permanently extended its paid sick leave policy to retail workers.
But even as tech giants and other businesses step up with paid leave policies matching the FFCRA, millions of workers remain unaccounted for. And when it comes to advocating for public policy measures that would cover a majority of workers, businesses have been reticent to lend their full-throated support (perhaps, in part, because providing generous paid leave benefits gives them a competitive advantage).
Advocates say that’s changing as the pandemic rages. A number of companies, from Levi Strauss & Co. to Patagonia, have pledged their support for the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which was sponsored by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and would guarantee all workers 12 weeks of partially paid leave. Even the Business Roundtable—a coalition of top CEOs that has long believed corporations should serve shareholders first and foremost—has come out in favor of federal legislation, though its members have since been criticized for not providing adequate worker protections during the pandemic.
“This was a growing need,” Sartor says. “Now that the pandemic hit, I think urgency is through the roof. But I think this is an issue that will remain, should we get on the other side of this pandemic. Over the slow push of time and the fast push of the pandemic, the business community is becoming more comfortable. And now the work is to build consensus on what that policy should look like.”
The pandemic has also weakened the case against a national paid leave policy, which has typically hinged on concerns that it would place an undue burden on small businesses. In Colorado, for example, small-business leaders were split on the paid leave proposition, with strong opposition from a coalition of business groups. But many small-business owners in support of the measure saw it as a way to provide more generous benefits and attract better talent.
“Employers started thinking about public policy differently,” Sartor says. “The FFCRA provisions were only for small employers, but they used those provisions, and it helped. And during the pandemic we’ve also seen this emerging recognition that these kinds of programs are incredibly helpful when you’re in a crisis.”
It remains to be seen whether the business community’s heightened enthusiasm for paid leave—and public policy advocacy—will lead to consequential policy changes. But as Raygun’s Draper points out, the companies that benefit most from the paid leave mandate right now are those that don’t already offer the benefit, since employees have to max out their existing leave allocation before qualifying for FFCRA provisions. In other words, the absence of a national paid leave policy puts small businesses that want to do right by their employees—the constituents that many Republicans and paid leave skeptics claim to be advocating for—at a disadvantage.
“You’re kind of punishing the companies that already provided leave,” Draper says. “That’s why I say this year just exposes the issues that have always been there. And if you’re playing by the rules and trying to do the right thing, I think this year—on lots of levels—has just aggravated you that much more.”