Opinion | How can we put covid behind us without guaranteed paid sick leave?

Tracy Kitchen Delong lives in the Tampa Bay area with her 11-year-old grandson. When he contracted covid in August 2021, she had to take three weeks off work to care for him. Her employer didn’t offer paid family medical leave, so she canceled the Internet and cut back on groceries. But she still got behind on rent and, under threat of eviction, moved out of her apartment in November.

Rehison Walker got sick during the omicron wave. He had to take two weeks off work from his job at an automotive collision repair shop in rural Kansas, and as in Delong’s case, his employer didn’t provide paid sick leave. “I was sick enough to go to the hospital,” he said. “I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t breathe.” Walker had health insurance, but he didn’t want to take on the out-of-pocket costs at the same time as he had lost income. So instead, he declined to go to the hospital.

How is it that in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, Americans have to make such difficult choices? And how is it possible that, as we might face another potential covid wave this spring, we still have not resolved this problem yet?

Early in the pandemic, the federal government required employers with fewer than 500 employees to offer paid sick and family leave. But those protections, the first of their kind in U.S. history, lapsed at the end of 2020. As a result, the United States remains one of the only developed countries without universal paid sick leave or family medical leave.

Americans are desperate to put the pandemic in the nation’s rearview mirror, but how can we do that when so many workers are concerned about getting sick? Consider, for example, that low-income workers and people of color are far less likely than high-income workers to have jobs that allow them to work from home. They’re also much less likely to have paid sick and family medical leave. Should we be surprised, then, that Black, Hispanic and low-income workers are more worried about getting covid, not only because they fear being seriously sick, but also because they fear missing work, losing wages or losing their jobs?

A recent KFF survey found that 3 in 10 low-income workers have gone to work despite having covid symptoms or a covid exposure simply because they couldn’t afford to take time off. During the omicron surge, 1 in 4 low-income workers, 1 in 5 Hispanic workers and 1 in 8 Black workers reported that missed workdays due to covid illness or quarantine had a major impact on their family’s stress and finances.

Paid sick leave is also good public health policy. Researchers estimate that because of the emergency sick leave law in 2020, one covid case was prevented per day for every 1,300 workers who newly gained the right to paid sick leave. That’s because infected people who can afford to stay home from work or school are less likely to infect others.

Women, foreign-born and part-time workers, who make up a large proportion of America’s caregiving workforce, are especially likely to work sick due to a lack of paid sick leave. This can have domino effects for those they care for, such as the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions and disabilities. When we don’t care for our caregivers, we put other vulnerable populations at risk, too.

The Biden administration has called on Congress to reinstate and expand emergency paid sick and family medical leave for covid. But with Democrats and Republicans in stark disagreement over how much more to spend on the pandemic and where those funds will come from, it’s unlikely federal funds will be available to subsidize paid leave. Whatever funding Congress does pass will likely be for tests, treatments and vaccines, not safety nets for workers. As such, state and local governments could step up. (Some, such as California, already have.) Private-sector employers and businesses could as well.

Delong has been living with her 72-year-old mother since November. In February, she and her mother fell sick with covid. Fortunately, Delong had just started a new job offering 75 percent of her wages while on leave. Had it not been for that policy, she said, she “would have been at square one all over again.”

Delong believes she has almost saved enough money to move into her own place with her grandson soon. Paid sick leave at her new job made all the difference. She considers herself lucky, because she understands that for far too many American workers, the strain of the pandemic still looms as a serious threat to their family’s well-being.