Opinion

Washington: Trust the Experts, Save Paid Leave

“Experts estimate that if workers simply followed the CDC guidelines and stayed home, the number of people affected by pandemic flu would be cut by up to one-third. If paid sick leave had been the reality when this pandemic began, we would be in far better shape across the Nation. So, I want it in place immediately to help parents and workers, and I want it in place before the next pandemic, which will come. I guarantee it will. And once again we’ll be sitting here asking ourselves the same questions once again. It’s a matter of fairness for workers, in my view, and it’s a matter of safety for all others.” 

These words aren’t from this month or even this year. They were spoken by then-Sen. Chris Dodd in November of 2009 about H1N1, a warning of what would happen if we didn’t pass paid sick leave before the next pandemic. And we are indeed sitting here, asking ourselves the same questions once again, and the federal government is about to let a cost-effective, proven tool to combat COVID-19 expire, right when cases may be peaking.

Has Washington learned this time?

The good news is that one of the first things Congress did in response to the COVID-19 outbreak was pass emergency paid leave provisions in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act — the first national paid leave policy of any kind in the United States and a recognition of how critical paid leave is to our public health and recovery. While the law was limited and left out many of the most vulnerable, it did provide two weeks of paid sick leave — vital protections — for working people across the country for the first time, as well as paid leave for child care.

And while this new program exempted up to 106 million workers and was never fully advertised or implemented as a new program, its impact was still remarkable: research I (Wen) did with colleagues Pichler and Ziebarth demonstrated that it prevented 400 new COVID-19 cases per day in states that gained access to paid sick leave. This adds up to more than 15,000 cases per day, a 56 percent lower case number per 100,000 population, and countless lives and jobs saved.

Research proving the benefits of paid leave are not new: There are numerous studies of health impacts of paid sick leave laws in both cities and states. This work has shown that employees without paid sick leave are usually low-wage workers and the least able to lose pay when they’re sick, or the most concerned with losing their jobs, particularly if facing a recession. When workers have access to paid sick days, they are more likely to stay home when they have symptoms and less likely to spread viruses among coworkers, customers, and anyone they interact with.

Meanwhile, we know that the emergency paid leave program is something we can afford. Data coming back from reimbursements shows that the program is dramatically less than its original score. Frankly, it’s something we can’t afford not to do. Research has shown that ensuring paid sick leave does not hurt job growth; in a pandemic, it is likely to increase consumer confidence, keep people attached to their jobs and their own benefits and safeguard businesses and workers alike.

And now, the emergency paid leave protections under FFCRA run out in just three short weeks, as we enter winter in the depths of a national crisis. 87 million workers would lose the benefit, but all of us will be impacted.

Politicians in Washington have gone months without passing another relief bill, prioritizing corporate bailouts and business meal deductions. The latest bipartisan proposal has negotiated liability shields protecting businesses from lawsuits if their employees are infected, but fails to extend the emergency paid leave that would help prevent those infections in the first place. That is not only a case of misplaced priorities — it doesn’t make sense. Paid Leave for All found that small business owners wanted federal paid sick leave to protect their workers instead, 2-1 over liability shields.

As we wait on our elected leaders to take action, public health experts from all corners of the scientific community are in consensus: Paid leave slows the spread of the virus and saves lives. Responding and recovering from this pandemic today means ensuring paid leave for all workers, not letting these life-saving protections expire on Dec. 31, and being prepared with a national policy so we’re not asking these questions yet again the next time we face a public health crisis.

Dawn Huckelbridge is the director of Paid Leave for AllKatherine Wen is the co-author of “COVID-19 Emergency Sick Leave Has Helped Flatten The Curve In The United States” and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University.

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