Policy Brief: Why Paid Sick Leave is an Effective Treatment Against Coronavirus COVID-19

Senator Chuck Schumer speaks with Congressional colleagues while addressing the media on the details of a paid sick leave bill.

In 2016 the City of Chicago passed an ordinance to provide workers with up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year. Cook County quickly followed with a similar ordinance, but 112 of 133 suburban municipalities surrounding Chicago have since opted out of the ordinance, utilizing their home rule authority to claim that it was too costly for business owners. With the outbreak of COVID-19 (the Coronavirus) it is apparent why paid sick leave is vital for the health—and the economy-- of the nation. Yet, millions of workers are not entitled to paid sick leave. Just eleven states and Washington, DC have passed paid sick leave legislation.1 Although 73% of workers in the private sector have access to some paid sick days2, there are major gaps. Workers in low paid jobs are most likely to lack coverage3,4 and many of these jobs require contact with the public—for example, fast food and restaurant workers, retail workers, and airport workers who clean aircraft cabins and restrooms in the terminals. Home care workers attending to the elderly and people with disabilities are in the top three fastest growing occupations5, and they too, lack coverage.6

Another large and growing group of workers who lack paid sick leave benefits are those in the gig economy: “...because the (on-demand) companies largely treat their workers as independent contractors -- a status that is currently being challenged in the state of California -- they aren't currently entitled to benefits such as health insurance, paid time off or sick leave. Uber and Lyft sent messages to workers in recent days with guidance that handwashing and cleanliness are important and noted that drivers should disinfect their vehicles frequently. But the fact remains that these workers do not have paid sick days, meaning they potentially must weigh their livelihood against risking their health and that of their passengers.”7

Recent reports in the broadcast media illustrate the dimensions of this problem and its implications for the nation’s health and economy8 as well the print and online media: “The United States is one of the few wealthy democracies in the world that does not mandate paid sick leave...Employers, as well as policymakers who oppose paid leave policies, tend to focus on short-term profitability: If you pay a worker to stay home sick, it’s easy to calculate exactly how much that costs your company. But they overlook the much larger and harder-to-calculate costs of not having a paid sick leave policy: More workers out sick because of those who are spreading the virus in the workplace, as well as decreased economic demand stemming from greater rates of illness among potential customers.”9

What should employers do to minimize the risk of infectious disease among their employees?

Some employers are allowing employees with desk jobs to work remotely from home, but that is not an option for transport workers, retail workers, health care workers and many others who must be present for the enterprise to function.10,11 New York’s governor has proposed that workers who are quarantined, receive full pay from their employers and the right to return to their jobs.12 In Illinois, the Pritzker administration has announced emergency rules to provide unemployment benefits to workers who have become sick from COVID-19.13 A bill has been introduced in Congress to require employers to provide seven paid days of sick leave to workers and 14 sick days available immediately in the event of public health emergencies such as COVID-1914 and on March 11, 2020 the House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on the Healthy Families Act (H.R.1784), which examined a paid sick leave plan for U.S. workers.15 The Trump administration is considering paid sick leave for hourly workers who lack coverage.16

The coronavirus has clearly begun to take a toll on the U.S. economy. Early on, workers’ rights advocacy organizations raised the alarm and offered suggestions for improved workplace policies and practices in particular industries.17,18 As for preventive measures to significantly lower risk for workers at highest risk, OSHA could issue an emergency standard. In 2010, after the H1N1 epidemic, OSHA began working on a standard to prevent transmission of airborne diseases, such as flu and TB. The standard, completed in 2017, has not been released.19,20 On March 6, the AFL-CIO and 21 affiliate unions petitioned OSHA to issue an emergency standard.21 If employers demonstrated the business case for such a regulation and joined with worker advocacy organizations, the government would more acutely feel the urgency to act. In the meantime, in addition to paid sick leave for all workers and remote work for employees where it is practicable, here are steps that employers can take and resources for more information.

UIC Center for Healthy Work


1 National Partnership for Women and Families. Paid sick days, state and district statutes. Updated October 2019.  (Retrieved March 5, 2020.)

2 US Bureau of Labor Statistics. TED-Daily. March 5, 2020. (Retrieved March 10, 2020)

3 Torry H, Morath E. Coronavirus poses dilemma for workers who risk losing pay. Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2020. (Retrieved March 10, 2020)

4 Jagannathan M. It’s a very unfortunate conundrum. As coronavirus spreads, the CDC urges sick workers to stay home—but what if you don’t get paid sick leave? MarketWatch. March 2,2020. (Retrieved March 10, 2020.)

5 US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fastest growing occupations: 20 occupations with the highest percent change of employment 2018-2028. Occupational Outlook Handbook. (Retrieved March 12, 2020.)

6 Pauly M. Home care workers are underpaid and uninsured, and on the front lines of fighting coronavirus. Mother Jones. March 5, 2020. (Retrieved March 10, 2020.)

7 O’Brien, SA. Uber, Lyft warn drivers about coronavirus, but offer no paid sick days. CNN Business, March 3, 2020 1522 GMT. (Retrieved March 6,2020)

8 PBS News Hour. How lack of paid sick leave is complicating US virus response. March 6, 2020. (Retrieved March 10, 2020)

9 Ingraham C . Our lack of paid sick leave will make the coronavirus worse. The Washington Post, March 3, 2020. (Retrieved March 5, 2020)

10 Warzel, C. When coronavirus quarantine is class warfare. The New York Times. March 6, 2020, 2:08 PM ET. (Retrieved March 6, 2020.)

11 Roberts, P. Not everyone can stay home: Seattle-area bus drivers, clerks and others fear exposure to coronavirus. The Seattle Times March 4, 2020, 8:43 AM. (Retrieved March 6, 2020)

12 Williams, Z. A new paid sick leave plan for coronavirus. City and State New York. March 3, 2020. (Retrieved March 6, 2020)

13 Illinois Department of Employment Security. Pritzker administration to provide unemployment benefits to workers impacted by coronavirus—benefits to cover workers without access to paid sick leave impacted by COVID -19. (Retrieved March 12, 2020)

14 U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro. Coronavirus: Murray, DeLauro introduce new emergency paid sick day legislation. (Retrieved March 10, 2020)

15 U.S. House of Representatives, Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. Committee Hearing: “The Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1784: Examining a plan to secure paid sick leave for U.S. workers, 116th Congress (2019-2020), March 11, 2020. (Retrieved March 12, 2020).

16 Jacobs J, Mohsin S, Wadhams N, Beene R. Trump likely to reveal sick leave, tax extension plan for virus. The Washington Post. March 11, 2020. (Retrieved March 12, 2020)

17 Association of Flight Attendants. -CWA- AFLC-CIO. COVID-19. Updated March 5, 2020. (Retrieved March 6, 2020)

18 National Nurses United. National Nurses United response to COVID-19. (Retrieved March 6, 2020)

19 Michaels, D. What Trump could do right now to keep workers safer from the coronavirus. The Atlantic, March 2, 2020. (Retrieved March 6, 2020)

20 Kindy, K. This regulation could protect health care workers from the coronavirus. It hangs in limbo. The Washington Post, March 5, 2020. 6:43 pm CST. (Retrieved March 6, 2020)

21 AFLCIO. A petition to Secretary Scalia for an OSHA emergency temporary standard for infectious disease. March 6, 2020. (Retrieved March 12, 2020)

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