There’s good news, bad news, and more bad news on paid sick leave in the United States. The good news is really good: According to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, 78% of private sector workers now have paid sick days, a big increase from 2010 when it was 63%. But too many workers, especially low-wage workers, have to choose between going to work sick and paying their bills. And COVID-19 has made the problem a lot bigger.
In the private sector, low-wage workers—those in the bottom 10% of earners—have gained dramatically since 2010, with the proportion having paid sick days nearly doubling from 20% to 39%. That’s in large part thanks to 15 states and the District of Columbia that have passed sick leave laws in the past decade. But—and here’s the first bad news—that still means 61% of low-wage workers don’t. That includes many in the food service industry, where people going to work sick is a real public health problem:
Almost half of all restaurant-related foodborne illness outbreaks are attributed to employees coming to work while ill (Norton et al. 2015). In a survey of women working in the fast-food industry, 70% reported that at some point during the prior year they had gone to work despite displaying symptoms of illness, including coughing, sneezing, fever, diarrhea, or vomiting (National Partnership for Women & Families 2016a).
That’s … not great. For anyone. Not for the person who has to go to work feeling terrible, nor the coworkers exposed to them all day, nor the customers exposed while ordering or through their food.
Then there’s COVID, which is becoming endemic. It’s still leading to thousands of daily hospital admissions and hundreds of weekly deaths across the country—our exciting new normal. Part of that new normal is the expectation that pretty much everyone will just get COVID sometimes. But the U.S. sick leave system was already inadequate when people had to deal with illnesses like the flu and that stomach bug your kid brought home from school. If we're just going to accept that everyone will have COVID once or twice a year, even if they’re fully vaccinated, that's a lot of extra time being sick. It's not like we'll get the flu less, or be miraculously immune to food poisoning. No, a majority of us will simply be sick more days in the year.
Once-generous sick leave may now be merely adequate, with nothing extra for, say, the year you need surgery. More people will now regularly be faced with the choice of working sick (risking the further spread of COVID and potentially increasing their own chances of developing long COVID) or not working even though they don't have any paid sick days left, if they had any in the first place.
This is one more way the nation has not reckoned with what endemic COVID means. It means that already inadequate sick leave policies—and at the federal level, there is no earned sick leave law—are now even more so. Like so many problems, this is going to be dumped onto the backs of U.S. workers and their families. But it’s bad for the nation as a whole.