COVID-19

Congress lets paid sick, family and medical leave mandate expire

Samantha Fields Jan 1, 2021
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A medical worker administers a coronavirus test at a drive-thru site in Washington, D.C., last year. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
COVID-19

Congress lets paid sick, family and medical leave mandate expire

Samantha Fields Jan 1, 2021
Heard on:
A medical worker administers a coronavirus test at a drive-thru site in Washington, D.C., last year. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Since March, when Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, many employers have been required to offer two weeks of paid sick leave to anyone who got sick with COVID-19 or had to quarantine because they’d been exposed, and up to 12 weeks of partially-paid family and medical leave for parents who had to stay home with a child whose school or daycare closed.

But that mandate, which applied to companies with between 50 and 500 employees, expired on Dec. 31. Congress did not extend it when it passed the $900 billion COVID relief bill just before Christmas.

“It really is devastating for working people, particularly, and the public,” said Tanya Goldman, senior policy attorney at The Center for Law and Social Policy. “We’re at a moment when the country is experiencing over 200,000 new cases a day of the virus. One study found that the emergency paid sick days reduced COVID by 15,000 cases a day in states that had newly-gained access to paid sick days.”

Before Congress passed the emergency sick leave provision in March, more than 30 million workers in the U.S. did not have a single paid sick day — primarily those who work in low-wage jobs. 

“These are workers who may face the choice where they cannot stay home, even if they are sick with COVID, because they would lose income that they need to pay for rent, to pay for groceries,” Goldman said. 

In addition to paid sick time, Congress also let the 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave benefits expire at the end of the year. 

“That means in some families, parents may need to make choices about whether to keep their job or whether to provide care for their children,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow for Paid Leave Policy and Strategy at New America. “We know that women in particular have suffered devastating employment losses [and] have needed to cut back on work because of the childcare responsibilities that have cropped up in this pandemic.”

The option to take up to 12 weeks of paid family leave was a “backstop” for many, she said, “and the elimination, the expiration of these provisions only makes that outcome more likely until we have a wide dissemination of a vaccine.”

Employers can still choose to offer paid sick, family and medical leave and get a tax credit for it through March 2021.

“But I suspect that most of them will only do it for the workers that they consider to be the most valuable, like in the past — professionals and managers,” said Ruth Milkman, a labor sociologist at the City University of New York. “The people who can least afford it are the ones who are hurt by this.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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