The Coronavirus Outbreak Shows the Disgrace of Not Guaranteeing Paid Sick Leave

Elise Gould

As the coronavirus hits the United States, the lack of paid sick leave could spell disaster. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Unit­ed States is unpre­pared for the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic giv­en that many work­ers through­out the econ­o­my will have finan­cial dif­fi­cul­ty in fol­low­ing the CDC’s rec­om­men­da­tions to stay home and seek med­ical care if they think they’ve become infect­ed. Mil­lions of U.S. work­ers and their fam­i­lies don’t have access to health insur­ance, and only 30% of the low­est paid work­ers have the abil­i­ty to earn paid sick days — work­ers who typ­i­cal­ly have lots of con­tact with the pub­lic and aren’t able to work from home.

There are defi­cien­cies in paid sick days cov­er­age per sec­tor, par­tic­u­lar­ly among those work­ers with a lot of pub­lic expo­sure. The fig­ure below dis­plays access to paid sick leave by sec­tor. Infor­ma­tion and finan­cial activ­i­ties have the high­est rates of cov­er­age at 95% and 91%, respec­tive­ly. Edu­ca­tion and health ser­vices, man­u­fac­tur­ing, and pro­fes­sion­al and busi­ness ser­vices have low­er rates of cov­er­age, but still main­tain at least three-quar­ters of work­ers with access. Trade, trans­porta­tion, and util­i­ties comes in at 72%, but there are sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences with­in that sec­tor rang­ing from util­i­ties at 95% down to retail trade at 64% (not shown). Over half of pri­vate-sec­tor work­ers in leisure and hos­pi­tal­i­ty do not have access to paid sick days. With­in that sec­tor, 55% of work­ers in accom­mo­da­tion and food ser­vices do not have access to paid sick days (not shown).

Of the pub­lic health con­cerns in the work­force relat­ed to COVID-19, two loom large: those who work with the elder­ly because of how dan­ger­ous the virus is for that pop­u­la­tion and those who work with food because of the trans­mis­sion of ill­ness. Research shows that more paid sick days is relat­ed to reduced flu rates. There is no rea­son to believe con­ta­gion of COVID-19 will be any dif­fer­ent. When over half of work­ers in food ser­vices and relat­ed occu­pa­tions do not have access to paid sick days, the ill­ness may spread more quickly.

What exac­er­bates the lack of paid sick days among these work­ers is that their jobs are already not eas­i­ly trans­fer­able to work­ing from home. On aver­age, about 29% of all work­ers can work from home. And, not sur­pris­ing­ly, work­ers in sec­tors where they are more like­ly to have paid sick days are also more like­ly to be able to work from home. Over 50% of work­ers in infor­ma­tion, finan­cial activ­i­ties, and pro­fes­sion­al and busi­ness ser­vices can work from home. How­ev­er, only about 9% of work­ers in leisure and hos­pi­tal­i­ty are able to work from home.

Many of the 73% of work­ers with access to paid sick days will not have enough days banked to be able to take off for the course of the ill­ness to take care of them­selves or a fam­i­ly mem­ber. COVID-19’s incu­ba­tion peri­od could be as long as 14 days, and lit­tle is known about how long it could take to recov­er once symp­toms take hold. The fig­ure below dis­plays the amount of paid sick days work­ers have access to at dif­fer­ent lengths of ser­vice. Paid sick days increase by years of ser­vice, but even after twen­ty years, only 25% of pri­vate-sec­tor work­ers are offered at least 10 days of paid sick days a year.

The small sliv­er of green shows that a very small share (only about 4%) of work­ers — regard­less of their length of ser­vice — have access to more than 14 paid sick days. That’s just under three weeks for a five-day-a-week work­er, assum­ing they have that many days at their dis­pos­al at the time when ill­ness strikes. The vast major­i­ty of work­ers, over three-quar­ters of all work­ers, have nine days or less of paid sick time. This clear­ly shows that even among work­ers with access to some amount of paid sick days, the amounts are like­ly to be insufficient.

A ver­sion of this post orig­i­nal­ly appeared at the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute.

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