Congress Must Extend Paid Leave Protections to All Workers in Next Coronavirus Response Bill

The U.S. Capitol dome is seen at dusk from a hallway, January 2020.

As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic causes significant economic fallout, policymakers must pass swift and expansive interventions to help workers access paid leave to recover and care for family members. Congress has taken several steps in the right direction to address the spread of the novel coronavirus and mitigate against its negative economic impacts. The first of these steps include the passage of an $8.3 billion spending bill intended to help fund the government’s initial response. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act which, among other provisions, ensures that Americans tested for the virus have no out of pocket costs. It also provides additional funds for nutrition and food assistance programs and Medicaid and expands unemployment insurance benefits while providing grants to states to help cover these costs.

It will also provide two types of paid leave to employees who are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Covered workers will be eligible for up to two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill; quarantined; caring for an individual who is ill or quarantined; or caring for a child whose school or place of care has been closed due to the pandemic.* If covered workers require additional leave beyond this to care for a child whose school or place of care is closed due to the coronavirus, they will be eligible for extended paid leave for up to 10 additional weeks, paid at two-thirds wage replacement.

These are vital measures and will ensure access to paid leave for 22 million public sector workers and somewhere between an estimated 32 million to 67 million private sector workers, depending on how options for exemptions are used by businesses and approved by the Department of Labor. The original legislation proposed by House Democrats would have covered all workers in the United States. Unfortunately, loopholes and exemptions were added to this original bill in the negotiations process that mean that millions of workers will be excluded from the protections they need to ensure their own health and that of their families and communities. Any additional attempts to further water down the paid leave provisions—such as the ones proposed by Senate Republicans—will only serve to carve out more workers, endangering the health of individuals, their families, and their communities.

Importantly, Congress has another opportunity to help families and Democratic leadership in both the House and the Senate have indicated a strong desire to expand upon the paid leave provisions that have been passed thus far in future coronavirus response legislation. Phase three of the coronavirus response stimulus package is being shaped in Congress right now. When enacted, it should expand access to leave by including passage of the Providing Americans Insured Days of Leave Act (PAID Leave Act) in order to ensure that all workers have access to the supports that they need to safeguard public health while also protecting families’ economic security.

Workers need access to paid leave

The public health emergency created by the coronavirus has resulted in an economic scenario that is virtually unprecedented in modern life. While workers have always needed paid leave to recover from a medical condition, seek health care, or care for a sick family member, the current pandemic has highlighted the critical need for paid leave like never before. Currently employed workers may need to access paid leave for any of the following reasons:

  • They become ill or need to self-quarantine after exposure to the virus
  • They need to provide care to an ill family member or care for a family member who is quarantined
  • They need to provide care to a child whose school or place of care is closed or unavailable due to the pandemic
  • They need to provide care to an older adult or adult with a disability whose place of care or professional caregivers are unavailable due to illness or quarantine

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that workers who have been exposed to the virus self-quarantine for 14 days to prevent further spread. However, that does not mean that 14 days away from work is a sufficient period of time for all workers. If an individual becomes ill during those two weeks, it is possible—if not likely—that they will require additional time to fully recover and become noninfectious. Caregiving responsibilities can easily stretch beyond two weeks, especially if there are multiple illnesses within the same family. And school closures have already been announced in at least two states through the end of the academic year. Paid leave is necessary to ensure that workers who are unable to work during the public health emergency for these reasons are still able to maintain their jobs and bring home income that will help them to continue paying their bills.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act includes important expansions for unemployment insurance, and additional fixes will be necessary to support workers who lose their job during the pandemic. However, efforts should be made to help people maintain ties to employment whenever possible. Paid leave is one such tool to help keep businesses intact while incorporating labor standards that address the needs of workers. This is in the best interests of workers, who will have a job to return to in the future, and businesses, who will have experienced workers back at their jobs when conditions allow. Layoffs have already begun as many businesses—especially small businesses in the service sector—have seen significant declines in demand as a result of the pandemic. These workers need and deserve assistance through an expansion of state unemployment insurance programs to ensure that they too have income until they are able to find new employment. But not all workplaces will need to lay off workers, including those who are in essential services and those who have jobs that can be completed remotely. And because state unemployment insurance programs are experiencing an overwhelming uptick in claims from workers who have been laid off due to the pandemic, lawmakers should refrain from increasing their caseload even more. Unemployment insurance and paid leave are not interchangeable policies, and both supports are needed to help ensure workers’ economic stability and boost the economy.

Phase 3 of the coronavirus response must incorporate the following principles in order to reduce the contagion through workplaces and to support the economic stability of workers during uncertain times:

1. All workers need comprehensive paid leave

In addition to leaving out millions of workers, the final version of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act whittled away the qualifying reasons an eligible worker could take paid leave. While workers are covered for their own health related reasons or for family caregiving responsibilities in the first two weeks of paid sick days, the only extended paid leave available is for parents to care for minor children if their school or place of care has closed due to the pandemic. This means that workers whose own health issues span beyond two weeks—or those who are caring for sick or quarantined family members—are ineligible for the extended paid leave protections in the bill.

Furthermore, people with disabilities who may have lost their principal caregiver due to COVID-19 will be unable to have their family members use paid sick leave under the bill in order to provide care. The current legislation also excludes adults with disabilities as in need of care, only providing for people who care for children with disabilities. Workers who are caring for aging relatives, who are among the populations most vulnerable to COVID-19, similarly lack meaningful protections if they need to care for an older adult who requires assistance.

It is also vital that any paid caregiving leave provisions include a definition of family that reflects the diversity of modern caregiving relationships. This is particularly important under the current travel restrictions and guidelines, which could make it difficult if not impossible for family members to travel in order to provide care. People are now even more likely to need to rely on their chosen family—people with whom they have a deep and significant personal bond but no blood or legal ties—especially in locations where they have been ordered to shelter in place and may be unable to rely on other potential caregivers.

2. All businesses (and workers) must be covered

Under the recently signed law, employers with more than 500 employees are not required to provide any form of paid leave, and employers with fewer than 50 employees can apply for a waiver that exempts them from providing paid child care leave. This means that somewhere between 47 percent and 75 percent of the private sector workforce will be excluded from accessing emergency paid leave protections.

An estimated  47.57 percent of all private sector workers, or approximately 61 million individuals, work for large employers and are thus excluded from any paid leave protections. Another 35 million individuals work for businesses with under 50 employees who are also not guaranteed to be covered by all of the paid leave protections in the bill. The legislation gives the U.S. Department of Labor the ability to grant exemptions for businesses with fewer than 50 employees “when the imposition of such [emergency paid leave] requirements would jeopardize the viability of the business.” This hardship exemption language is much too vague, and it is unclear how the Department of Labor will go about granting exemptions.

Because of the way that the financial relief for employers is structured, small businesses would be able to recoup the costs of providing emergency paid leave to their employees—but only through a reduction in their quarterly taxes. This relief may not come soon enough for many small employers with tight margins. These small businesses are in a difficult position and deserve help from the government, but the way that help is structured may lead to genuine hardship and jeopardize their businesses. But this should be accomplished by providing relief to employers more quickly—not by potentially excluding millions of workers employed in small businesses.

And while some of these 96 million workers who may be left out of the paid leave protections may already have some paid leave offered by their employers, nowhere close to all of these workers do. That means, if these workers or their families are exposed to COVID-19, they must make an impossible choice between continuing to work and receive a paycheck or missing work to recover, provide care, and prevent the further spread of the virus to the public.

Even among workers with current paid sick days policies, most do not have the ability to accrue sufficient time to adhere to the CDC’s current 14-day quarantine recommendations should they be exposed to COVID-19. The majority of workers with paid sick days, regardless of job tenure, earn less than 10 days of paid sick days per year. Even workers with 20 years of service earn a median of six to eight days per year. Such an amount may be adequate under normal circumstances, but it is far less than what is needed to ensure public safety during the current pandemic. The original legislation introduced in the House by Democrats would have covered all workers, regardless of employer size. Congress should return to this standard to guarantee equitable and universal access to paid leave.

3. Workers, and the economy, need fair wage replacement

Leaving aside the exclusion of millions of workers from paid leave protections, without additional interventions, covered and eligible workers will receive differing levels of wage replacement during the initial two weeks of paid sick leave, depending on the reason they need to take leave. Workers will generally receive their normal pay while out on sick leave if they themselves are sick or if they need to self-quarantine—up to a maximum of $511 per day. However, workers who must take leave to care for an ill or quarantined family member or to care for a child whose school or place of care is closed will only receive two-thirds of their original pay, up to a maximum of $200 per day.

Mothers and unmarried parents caring for their children—most of whom are women—are especially likely to be disproportionately affected, since women are the family members most likely to provide care to children—sick or not. A Pew Research Center study found that 47 percent of parents report that the mother does more when it comes to taking care of sick children compared to only 6 percent of parents who say the father does more. The latest available data shows that 41 percent of mothers—including 41.0 percent of Latinx mothers and 68.3 percent of Black mothers—are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, earning at least half of their total household income. This means that families of color will be especially hard hit by the wage discrepancy because Black and Latinx mothers are more likely to be the sole source of income in their families. This is likely to result in significant economic shocks to families that will ripple into the larger economy.

More federal legislative fixes are needed

It is heartening to see Congress act quickly in a bipartisan fashion in order to address the needs of working families during the pandemic. But carving out large swaths of the workforce is counterproductive if the goal is to lower risks to public health by enabling sick people to stay home from work in accordance with CDC guidelines. And reducing the amount of leave available to workers who are sick or caring for a sick loved one—while only offering extended paid leave for child care reasons—further undermines the public health of communities. Explicitly devaluing family caregiving responsibilities by providing a lower level of wage replacement to those who are caring for sick family members or children during school closures and excluding protections for people with disabilities lays bare which workers—and which forms of labor—are truly being valued.

Congress should ensure that these issues are addressed in the third coronavirus legislative package, all of which could be achieved through the inclusion of the PAID Leave Act. The bill would cover all private sector workers—including gig workers and the self-employed—with 14 days of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of COVID-19-related comprehensive paid family and medical leave.

The first and only emphasis must be on protecting the health and safety of the public—not bowing to the preferences of big business or attempting to save money by shortchanging working caregivers. This public health crisis highlights how interconnected people’s lives are, and additional legislation must be passed to provide equitable and fair paid sick leave to all workers.

Sarah Jane Glynn is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

*Author’s note: Full-time workers are eligible for 80 hours of paid sick leave, or the equivalent of two 40-hour weeks. Part-time employees are eligible for the number of hours that they usually work, on average, over a two-week period.

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