Sick leave policy is confusing. Will the pandemic spur change?

Employment and health experts say comprehensive and easily accessible paid sick leave is crucial to combating COVID-19 and its economic impact 

In early November, Matt and Crystal attended a funeral. 

Seven days later, Crystal tested positive for the coronavirus. She self-isolated in their bedroom, and while Matt never tested positive or came down with symptoms, he quarantined in the other part of their house, along with their two children. 

He took three weeks off at Walmart, where he’s worked for the past 15 years, returning after their local health department in Montana gave the OK. Matt was able to use sick leave and vacation days.

Despite taking place during a pandemic, Matt’s situation was otherwise a standard case of arranging to use paid time off. But, nearly a month after he quarantined, he still hasn’t been fully reimbursed for the days he missed.

Matt’s received about $400 in sick pay, but the family is still out $2,600 of his monthly take-home pay. “You kind of need that to live on,” Crystal said. (The couple requested that their last names be withheld, to avoid potential repercussions for Matt at work).

They’ve been able to offset the shortfall with money from recently refinancing their house.

Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.

The couple’s experience is just one example of how the pandemic has exposed inconsistencies and confusion in a patchwork system of paid sick leave in the United States. Before the pandemic, 24% of workers didn’t have access to any kind of paid sick leave, according to a report issued by Pew Research Center in March. And as essential workers across the country have continued to show up to their jobs, many haven’t had access to a benefit that would allow them to stay home without going broke or facing potential job loss. 

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“A key issue with paid sick leave in the United States is it’s a very fractured system,” said Dr. Daniel Correa, an assistant professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

As the coronavirus spikes across the county (in mid-December the U.S. had an average of 211,008 new cases per day according to The New York Times), experts say having a comprehensive and easily accessible paid sick leave policy is crucial to combating the disease and its economic impact. 

Elizabeth Lopez prepares food at Hacienda Mexican Grill in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 22, 2020. The family-owned business with three restaurant locations and over 100 employees sustained itself from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic with the help of Paycheck Protection Program funding. | Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

Worker confusion

Only 13 states currently require employers to offer paid sick leave and a few states passed additional measures in response to the coronavirus. Colorado passed a temporary measure in March that required up to four days of paid sick leave for people in certain industries (like hospitality and transportation) and New York required workplaces with 100 or more employees to provide sick pay for 14 days.

Congress also took action in passing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March, mandating two weeks of paid sick leave to those who didn’t normally get it. Employers would be reimbursed through a refundable tax credit.

But the act had loopholes (i.e. companies with more than 500 employees were excluded, and certain exemptions for companies with fewer than 50 employees), and even workers who did qualify have had problems accessing the funding, or, in some cases, weren’t even aware that the government mandated paid leave was available. 

A report from the Center for American Progress estimated that 2 million workers in grocery stores did not qualify for paid leave under the Families First act. 

Some states filled in the gaps in federal policy — California expanded paid sick leave to include workers in the food sector (from farm to grocery store workers) at companies with more than 500 employees.

However, the mix of federal and state policies still presents many workers with a difficult decision if they are exposed to or become sick with COVID-19. “They have to make a choice between putting other people at risk, their co-workers at risk versus their family at risk because of financial limitations,” Correa said. 

Jinny Kim, director of the Disability Rights Program at Legal Aid Work, explained many workers remain confused on whether they are covered or not. 

“Our clinic hotlines have increased dramatically since COVID started, and they’re all related to COVID. So it’s paid sick leave or unemployment or other kinds of benefits available to people, as well as to try to interpret some of these confusing regulations.”

Employer confusion

After the passage of the Families First law, employers were also confused for a while about details in the federal plan, said Barbara Holland, an adviser with the Society for Human Resource Management. 

For example, it took several months to realize that the federally provided paid sick leave benefits could only be used once — regardless of whether someone switched employers. 

“Once the 80 hours were gone under that extended sick leave, they’re gone,” Holland said. If you used the paid time off because you thought you were sick or were exposed to the virus, but then later contracted COVID-19, you wouldn’t be eligible for federally funded paid time off again. 

There are potentially other options if someone has exhausted the federal relief, like applying for short-term disability, or using other paid time off a worker might have accrued. Otherwise, workers would have to miss a paycheck if they were stuck at home ill or quarantined. 

For all the issues with federal COVID relief, everyone agrees it was better than nothing. But the act is set to expire at the end of the month, as the country continues to grapple with the worst wave of the coronavirus. The latest bipartisan bill being negotiated may not include an extension of federal paid sick leave benefits, Kaiser Health News reported.

Opportunity for lasting change

“One of the key measures that will mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace is that sick workers need to stay home, and that exposed workers also need to stay home.” said Debbie Berkowitz, director of the Worker Health and Safety Program at the National Employment Law Project. 

The core of all federal health guidance in the workplace is sick workers need to stay home, Berkowitz pointed out. 

But the coronavirus exposed how the paid sick leave system makes it difficult for employees and employers to follow that guidance. Some health experts hold out hope the pandemic could be a catalyst for changing access to sick leave for more workers.

“This gives us an opportunity to test something like a universal paid sick leave, see what it would provide as a health benefit to the community,” Correa said. 

He acknowledges that some smaller businesses may not be able to foot the bill, but he says cost sharing between federal and state governments with businesses could be one solution.

Other experts, like Berkowitz, would like to see companies establish better policies. 

According to Holland, with the Society for Human Resource Management, some businesses are starting to do just that, especially since the federal policies passed during the pandemic will sunset.

“There’s a growing interest. Employers want to do something, but they also are bound by budgetary restrictions,” Holland said, noting they are now struggling to recover from the economic impact of pandemic and waiting to see how Congress responds to calls for more financial relief. 

“There may be something that comes back in, that helps some more,” Holland said. “We just don’t know. There’s a lot of uncertainty as we approach 2021.”