As more cases of coronavirus are reported in the United States, public health officials are encouraging anyone who is displaying any kind of cold or flu-like symptoms to stay home. But for many American workers, self-quarantining for coronavirus could mean losing wages or even their job.
On March 6, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced legislation that would provide paid sick days immediately to workers in preparation for future public health emergencies like the current coronavirus crisis. The bill would require all employers to allow workers to gradually earn seven days of paid sick leave, and to provide an additional 14 days of paid sick leave during an emerging public health situation. The bill would also guarantee that paid sick leave covers health-related school closures, or if a worker or member of their family is put in quarantine.
“For truck drivers, those in the service industry, restaurant workers, staying home means losing a paycheck or losing your job,” DeLauro said in a press call on Mar. 9. She added that 27% of all private sector workers do not have paid sick days and will go without pay if they cannot show up to work. “The CDC’s prescription is one few families can afford.”
In a statement, Murray said, “Workers want to do the right thing for themselves, their families, and their communities. [...] This bill would immediately give workers the ability to care for themselves, their families, and help keep their communities safe. We need to pass it without delay.” Of the over 1,000 coronavirus cases in the U.S., over 100 have been found in Murray’s home state of Washington. More than 20 Washingtonians have died of the illness as of March 11.
One person being unable to access paid sick leave can then endanger countless others.
The new legislation expands on the Healthy Families Act (HFA), which Murray and DeLauro first introduced in their respective chambers of Congress in 2004. HFA would implement mandatory paid sick leave for all Americans, even outside of public health emergencies. The act has been reintroduced in every subsequent Congressional session since it was first proposed, but Congress has yet to pass it. Without it, the United States remains the only developed country in the world to not guarantee paid sick leave to workers.
Alex Baptiste, policy counsel at the National Partnership of Women and Families, tells Bustle that the coronavirus outbreak puts “a very bright light on the fact that the U.S. does not have a paid sick leave federal standard.” Baptiste explains that people who work hourly are least likely to have paid sick leave, and that those with hourly jobs are also those most likely to be interacting with the public in food service, retail, and caregiving jobs.
“If you’re at work and you go to grab lunch and the person behind the counter doesn’t have paid sick leave, that means they’re going to work sick and handling your food and you’re then taking that back to your desk in your office,” she says. In other words: One person being unable to access paid sick leave can then endanger countless others.
In a 2016 survey of over 1,000 female fast-food workers, 70% reported going to work at least once in the previous year while coughing, vomiting, having a fever, or other serious symptoms.
Julie Kashen, the director of Women’s Economic Justice and a senior fellow at the progressive non-partisan think tank The Century Foundation, adds that 93% of people who are in the top 10% of earners have paid sick leave from their employer. Around a third of those in the lowest 10% of earners do not.
Women comprise nearly two-thirds of the 24 million low-wage workers in the United States, with women of color disproportionately represented in these kinds of jobs, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Data from the National Partnership for Women and Families, which has endorsed both the emergency bill and HFA, shows how a lack of paid sick leave disproportionately impacts low-wage workers: Over 80% of all food service workers and 75% of child care center workers don't get paid sick days. In a 2016 survey of over 1,000 female fast-food workers, 70% reported going to work at least once in the previous year while coughing, vomiting, having a fever, or other serious symptoms.
These policies can be doubly hard on workers of color. Analysis by the Brookings Institute shows that both Black and Latinx workers are overrepresented among low-wage workers relative to their share of the total workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly half of all Latinx workers and more than one-third of Black workers report having no paid time away from work of any kind.
The fact that federal legislators are trying to pass an emergency paid sick day law only underscores the consequences of not having federally guaranteed sick leave. On March 11, Republican senators blocked the bill, arguing that the government, not employers, should pay for increased sick leave. HuffPost reports that the bill could still later be attached to other legislation meant to mitigate the fallout from the virus. But for now, as more people are encouraged to socially distance as officials work to contain the coronavirus outbreak, making sure people don’t lose their jobs for taking care of themselves feels especially critical. As Baptiste explains, “When we’re talking about the really difficult decision between taking care of your child and putting food on the table [...] that needs to be something we as a country focus on.”
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here.
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