[March 19, 2020: New law alert! We’ve posted an update to the information contained in this post. For current information, please see Paid Sick Leave and Paid Family Leave Under the Families First Coronavirus Act.]
Many employees who don’t go to work because of the coronavirus—whether they are ill or staying home as directed by a public official—won’t get paid time off for the days they miss. Some may even lose their jobs. Here’s how the law does and does not protect workers in the event of a public health crisis.
By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard the list of steps we should all be taking to stop the spread of coronavirus, from washing our hands and not touching our faces to staying home if we aren’t feeling well. (If you prefer your coronavirus advice with viral dance moves, check out this interpretation of the Vietnam government’s PSA on staying healthy.)
For many employees, though, missing work can be costly: About 25% of private industry workers in the U.S. get no paid sick time. And the percentages are higher for some jobs that are likely to involve public contact, like sales and service positions.
No Federal Protections Exist
No federal law requires employers to offer paid sick leave, so employers in many states are free to decide whether to offer paid sick time as a job benefit. Although there’s plenty of pressure right now to pass a federal law requiring paid sick leave, nothing has happened yet.
Just this week, Senator Patty Murray and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro reintroduced a turbo-charged version of the Healthy Families Act, which would have required employers to allow employees to earn up to seven paid sick days a year—and required employers to provide 14 paid sick days immediately in the event of a public health emergency, including the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers have introduced The Healthy Families Act in several forms for the past 15 years, but Congress has failed to take action—and this week was no different. Senator Lamar Alexander blocked passage of the bill by unanimous consent. House Democrats have proposed adding paid leave to the coronavirus relief bill requested by President Trump, but it remains to be seen how their proposal will fare.
Some States Require Paid Sick Leave
In the absence of federal action, about a dozen states have laws that require employers to give employees at least a few sick days per year. Typically, employees in these states earn sick time as they work. In New Jersey, for example, employees earn an hour of paid sick leave for every thirty hours they work. These laws also allow employers to cap how much sick time an employee may earn or use in a year, and how much time an employee may carry over into the following year.
Employees can use this time for their own health concerns or to care for a family member who is ill. Although these laws are not very generous—they provide from three to five days off per year, commonly—they give employees a small cushion if they need to stay home.
Some States Address Public Health Emergencies
As more workplaces and schools close in response to the coronavirus, employees and parents will also have to miss work, whether or not they are actually ill. About half of the states that require paid sick leave address this situation. Employees in these states, which include Oregon, Washington, and Michigan, can use their paid sick leave if a public official closes their workplace, their child’s school, or their child’s care facility due to a pandemic or other public health emergency. Employees can also use paid sick days in these states if a public health authority or health care provider determines that the employee or a family member has been exposed to a communicable disease that may jeopardize the health of others in the community.
Again, because these laws provide only a few days off at most, it’s not clear what happens when a seriously ill or quarantined employee’s paid sick days run out. Employees that work for larger employers may be entitled to time off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or a similar state law. Although the FMLA protects an employee’s right to return to work and prohibits employers from firing an employee for taking leave, it does not require employers to pay employees while they are out.
Here’s the big picture: Employees who contract the coronavirus must stay home from work to avoid spreading the disease. And children who are exposed to the virus must stay home from school, which means someone must care for them. But many employers won’t pay workers for this time—and some will even fire their employees for doing the right thing by staying home.
If there’s a silver lining in any of this, it may be that the coronavirus crisis is exposing and highlighting our need for universal paid sick leave. To find out more about why we need a federal law guaranteeing paid sick leave, see this resource page from A Better Balance.
To learn more about workers’ rights in your state, see Legal Consumer’s wage and hour law learning center.