Paid sick leave could help prevent the spread of coronavirus — but 18 states bar local governments from enacting it

An employee at a McDonald’s in Washington, DC, looks at the order screen to see what she has to prepare next, while wearing gloves. Hector Emanuel/The Washington Post/Getty Images
  • Paid sick leave has generated huge attention over the past week as more cases of coronavirus are diagnosed in the US.
  • But 25% of American workers – or 32 million people – don’t have access to paid sick leave from their employers.
  • The lack of sick pay in the US increases the odds that people will work sick since they can’t afford to take home a smaller paycheck.
  • Eighteen states have laws barring local governments from enacting paid sick leave policies, per the Economic Policy Institute.
  • A 2018 study found that cities that had required employers to pay workers while they were ill experienced a 40% drop in infection rates a year later.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The issue of paid sick leave has generated a huge amount of attention over the past week as the coronavirus continues spreading in the US with new cases diagnosed daily. Among measures the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended is staying home if you’re ill.

But that may be a luxury many people can’t afford, given that around a quarter of all US workers have no paid sick days,data from the Bureau of Labour Statistics shows. That comes out to 32 million people in the workforce.

Around 18 states also have laws barring local governments from enacting paid sick leave, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, as illustrated in its map below.

On February 25, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that low-wage workers, particularly in the fast-food sector, often head to work sick because they can’t afford to miss out on any wages.

“I can’t tell you how many times the people who handle your food – who are already overworked & underpaid – show up sick to work because our country refuses to guarantee healthcare or paid sick leave,” the New York congresswoman tweeted.

Data from the CDC backed up her assessment: One in five service workers reported going to work sick with vomiting or diarrhoea.

The US is among the few developed nations that don’t mandate employers to pay workers when they fall ill and miss a day of work. It raises the prospect that people – particularly in low-wage jobs – will end up spreading the virus among their coworkers or others in public spaces because they can’t afford to take home a smaller paycheck.

“The CDC released very clear instructions to help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, including staying home when you are sick,” senior economist Elise Gould wrote in a blog post for the EPI. “Not everyone has that option.”

Federal law only mandates that hourly workers get paid for the time they work. So far ,a dozen states require employers to provide paid sick leave for their workers, often including those in part-time jobs.

As of Wednesday, the coronavirus has infected more than 94,000 people in at least 80 countries beyond China, its point of origin. The death toll from the respiratory disease it causes, COVID-19, has killed more than 3,200 people, mostly in China. There are at least 128 confirmed cases in the US.

Cities with paid sick leave have lower infection rates

The disparity is stark between the highest-paid and lowest-paid workers on access to paid sick leave. The same BLS data also demonstrates that within the top 25% in wage distribution among workers, around 92% will get paid while they are sick.

That’s in comparison to just over half (or 51%) of employees in the bottom 25% – who are often in roles requiring frequent contact with the public such as restaurant workers or home health aides.

Some of the 18 states banning cities from passing their own sick pay policies have large populations of workers. Florida is the biggest on the list. Others include Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

It’s a significant hurdle for local governments seeking to improve the health and working conditions of their residents.

Five states do guarantee sick pay, per the EPI’s map, but don’t allow county or city governments to implement policies that differ from state standards. Among them are New Jersey, Rhode Island, Maine, Maryland, and Oregon.

There are already indications of what can happen when paid sick leave is made reality. A 2018 study from researchers Stefan Pichler and Nicolas Robert Ziebarth offered striking insight into the effect of sick pay on slowing the spread of illnesses.

In the 2000s, some of the nation’s largest cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City implemented such policies – and Pichler and Ziebarth sought to understand how that affected influenza rates before and after sick pay was enacted.

They found that a year after cities had implemented paid sick leave, infection rates were 40% lower compared to those that had no similar law on the books.

As the federal government attempts to contain the outbreak of coronavirus in the US, the issue of paid sick leave will gain additional urgency as a possible policy tool to prevent its further spread.