Paid sick leave is fundamental to a healthy economy

Enterprise file photo – H. Rose Schneider
In 2018, Elizabeth James of Albany spoke in favor of a proposed Albany County law that would have allowed workers to earn paid sick time. James said she lost her job after missing work for nearly a week when she got sick with the flu and infected her two children, whom she then had to care for.

The pandemic has tested us as a society. If we choose, we can learn from some of the truths it has laid bare.

One of those is the need for paid sick leave.

Sick people being unable to take time off from work tripled during the pandemic — and this was despite a federal program meant to help them.

 Fewer than half of workers were aware that emergency COVID-19 sick leave was available, according to a recent Cornell University study, “Awareness and use of (emergency) sick leave: U.S. employees’ unaddressed sick leave needs in the midst of a global pandemic.

 Foreign-born residents are at significantly higher risk of working while sick, and women’s risk is 69 percent higher than men’s, the study found.

Women are overrepresented in the service and hospitality industries and they are also more likely to be the primary caregivers for children, balancing household chores and childcare with paid work.

We believe universal paid leave would improve gender equity.

The Cornell study also found that awareness of the sick-leave provision was particularly low among service and hospitality workers — some of the very people who made up the essential workforce that carried the nation through the worst of the surges and subsequent shutdowns.

“The United States is one of the few developed countries without universal sick leave coverage; working sick is an ongoing problem reinforcing the spread of COVID-19,” the study concludes.

The study cites research showing that gaining access to emergency sick leave reduced infection rates by about 15,000 per day in April and May of 2020.

In the last decade, sick leave coverage has increased significantly in the United States from 64 percent in 2011 to 75 percent in 2020. The share of employees with unaddressed sick leave needs remained stable from 2011 to 2018.

However, during the pandemic, the share of employees with unaddressed sick leave needs tripled to about 10 percent, or 15 million employees per month.

Although access to paid sick leave has increased, it is far from universal in the United States. Employees in the low-wage and service sector and part-time employees have significantly lower coverage rates. Access to sick leave induces take-up and reduces flu and COVID-19 infection rates.

In March 2020, the United States implemented the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provided federally funded emergency paid sick leave due to COVID-19.

The act provided up to two weeks of paid sick leave and family leave for COVID-19–related reasons for employees in firms with fewer than 500 employees. Extended through March 30, 2021, this one-time provision has now expired.

However, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 renewed employer and employee eligibility for an additional 10 days of paid sick leave through Sept. 30, 2021.

So, at the end of this month, Albany County residents who work for businesses without paid sick leave will feel pressure to work even when they are sick, even as the community transmission rate for COVID-19 here is labeled high by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Albany County Legislature visited this issue several years ago — but failed to act. Now would be a good time to reconsider.

In June 2019, as our reporter Sean Mulkerrin put it, 11 Democrats sided with management and 10 Republicans to vote down, 21 to 17, a proposed law that would have required Albany County employers to provide paid sick time to their workers.  

Had the pared-down bill passed, workers employed in Albany County for more than 80 hours in a calendar year would have been able to earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, with accrued sick time capped at 40 hours.

Had a business employed six or more workers, the sick leave would have been paid. If a worker had been employed by a company that had five or fewer employees, then the accrued 40 hours earned would have been unpaid.

The Cornell study, conducted in the midst of the pandemic, makes clear that paid sick leave reduces infection rates, which not only saves lives — an immeasurable worth — but also, in keeping others from getting sick, strengthens the economy.

Other studies have shown that overall worker productivity increases when employers provide paid sick leave.

According to a Commonwealth Fund study completed back in 2005, fifty-five million workers reported a time when they were unable to concentrate at work because of their own illness or that of a family member, accounting for 478 million days. According to the analysis, “Workers without paid time off to see a physician are more likely to report missing work or being unable to concentrate at their job.” 

“Presenteeism,” a relatively new term, describes a phenomenon that is, in some ways, the opposite of absenteeism. It refers to employees feeling compelled to work even when they are sick. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that presenteeism costs were higher than medical costs in most cases. In other words, employers lose more through the lower productivity of sick workers than they would in paying for them to stay home and get better.

“A majority of working adults say they still go to work when they are sick,” according to a 2016 study from the Harvard School of Public Health. “Half of restaurant workers and more than half of workers in medical jobs say they still go to work always or most of the time when they have a cold or the flu. Many workers have also had experiences in caring for family members who were seriously ill, injured, or disabled while working at their current job.”

Workers in medical facilities and at restaurants, of course, have jobs that would allow them to spread their illnesses to a wide variety of patients or customers.

A 2009 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research called “Contagion Nation: A Comparison of Paid Sick Day Policies in 22 Countries,” states: “In health care and service settings, providing paid sick days to employees also helps to protect the health of patients and customers. For example, nursing homes that provide their employees with paid sick days have lower rates of respiratory and gastrointestinal illness among the patients they serve.”

We’ve certainly seen, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the problems caused in nursing homes when staff is infected.

Some who argued against the Albany County bill two years ago said they weren’t opposed to paid sick leave but that it should be handled at the state or federal level. We believe that, while the state and federal government should act, the county can lead the way.

Albany County, for example, was ahead of the state in protecting the environment by banning polystyrene containers at restaurants. Now the state has a proposal for an even more far-reaching ban, preempting the county’s law.

Another argument two years ago against the county’s paid-sick-leave bill, was that businesses would fail in or leave Albany County if the law were adopted. However, other municipalities have benefited from such legislation. New York City passed an earned-sick-time law that took effect in 2014, covering about  3.9 million workers, including 1.4 million who had not had access to paid sick leave before. 

A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in 2015 and 2016 found “the vast majority of employers responding to our survey (almost 85 percent) reported that the new law had no effect on their overall business costs.” Rather than leading to a loss of jobs as critics had predicted, jobs increased.

Government should protect workers — minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor laws are all examples of government protecting workers because some businesses would not.

According to a study cited in Albany County’s defeated bill, up to 40 percent of county workers lacked access to paid sick leave. The disparity is more pronounced among workers in low-wage jobs, according to the American Public Health Association.

We believe, based on the research cited here, that Albany County’s economy would be more robust if those workers had access to paid sick leave. When sick or injured, they would return to work more quickly and be more productive. And, they would not spread disease to co-workers, customers, or patients, improving the health of the community.

“Influenza-like disease rates decrease after employees gain access to paid sick leave,” according to a 2016 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. States and cities that require paid sick leave have fewer flu cases than comparable states and cities.

The Cornell study on the COVID-19 pandemic has borne this out.

 It shows that government-provided or government-facilitated access to paid sick leave has the potential to significantly reduce infection rates, and improve population health.

As we struggle to regain a robust economy, we need to ensure we have a healthy workforce. Now is the time to enact paid sick leave.

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