America's Workers Need Paid Sick Time Now

Congress Must Reinstate and Expand Emergency Paid Sick Leave Guarantees for Workers
Blog Post
Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash
Jan. 12, 2022

To frontline workers and parents with kids who are isolating or quarantining, 2022 might feel a lot like 2020, but without key protections in place. In 2020, Congress adopted a first-ever national paid sick days requirement that applied to as much as half of the workforce. The country saw results: more security for workers, public health protections, and support for employers. Unfortunately, that program expired at the beginning of 2021, replaced with voluntary employer incentives that were less effective at guaranteeing paid sick time when workers needed it. In September 2021, the voluntary incentives expired even though the COVID-19 pandemic has persisted.

Congress must act now to reinstate and expand paid sick time. Three key points explain why and background on the 2020 and 2021 legislation follows.

Key Points

1) Paid sick days are a critical public health intervention that we need now, urgently, as the country continues to face unprecedented illness, quarantine, and isolation requirements. COVID is an ongoing public health risk that we must manage with every available tool.

  • Millions of workers do not have paid sick days to isolate, quarantine, recover from COVID or care for a loved one. In 2021, 77% of all private-sector workers had paid sick leave, but only 52% in the lowest wage quartile (up to $15/hour) and just 33% in the lowest wage decile (up to $11.74/hour) did. In addition, only 50% of leisure and hospitality workers, including 49% in food service, had paid sick leave.
    • Lack of paid sick time is not new—nor has the pandemic appreciably shifted access. Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, nearly 34 million workers (24% of the civilian workforce) could not earn a single paid sick day to recover from the flu or seek preventive health services, and millions more did not have paid sick time to care to a sick child or loved one.
  • Women and Black and Latinx workers are the least likely to have paid sick time. These workers are also more likely to be on the front lines of the pandemic due to the nature of their jobs, or to have left jobs during the pandemic because of health or care needs.
  • Health researchers estimate that the Emergency Paid Sick Leave provisions passed by Congress prevented more than 400 COVID cases per day per state in 2020 (or more than 15,000 nationwide in states that did not have prior paid sick time guarantees).
    • The effects of a paid sick time law would be even greater with a more transmissible variant, like Omicron, and with coverage that extends to all workers regardless of the size of their employer.

2) People without paid sick time cannot easily follow CDC guidance to isolate or quarantine in the event of a positive COVID diagnosis or symptoms because they cannot afford to forgo pay or risk losing their jobs. Well before prices on basic household expenses started going up, workers’ lack of paid sick days forced hard kitchen-table choices for families because:

  • Just 4.5 unpaid sick days jeopardized a family’s food budget for a month.
  • Three unpaid sick days jeopardized a family’s ability to pay health insurance premiums.
  • Less than one unpaid sick day jeopardized a family’s ability to pay car insurance.

3) As the country and the world face a new, highly infectious strain of COVID and rising case numbers, Congress must recognize that this is the moment to reinstate and strengthen a national emergency paid sick leave plan that keeps working people safe.

  • Large companies need requirements in place too. In the last week, large, profitable businesses with frontline workforces, such as Wal-Mart, Amazon, CVS, and Walgreens, cut leave time for employees in half (from 10 to 5 days, even in cases where workers are sick or still contagious after an exposure).
  • More companies may follow suit and justify their decision using current CDC guidance on shorter isolation periods. This guidance, adopted at the urging of Delta Airlines and other companies, deprives sick workers of the time they need to recover and leaves parents of children whose schools or daycares have closed without any guarantee of paid leave or the ability to keep their job.

Congress must reinstate FFCRA paid sick time and expand its reach to all workplaces. We cannot get this pandemic under control without deploying paid sick leave—along with vaccinations, anti-viral medications, masks, and other public health interventions—as a critical intervention.


2020 Emergency Paid Sick & Family Leave: In March 2020, Congress acted swiftly and on a bipartisan basis to create a federal emergency paid sick and child care leave program in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. That action was based on a common-sense understanding that paid leave would be critical to addressing the health and economic crises COVID created.

  • The twin FFCRA provisions—paid leave requirements and employer reimbursement—were in place from April 1-December 31, 2020. The provisions applied to workers in businesses with fewer than 500 employees who were not included in exempted categories—between 22 million and 60.5 million workers.
  • In the summer of 2020, Congressional Democrats sought to expand and extend emergency paid leave through provisions in the HEROES Act. The bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

Emergency Leave’s Impact: The FFCRA paid sick leave helped reduce the spread of COVID by roughly 400 cases per state per day, or more than 15,000 daily nationwide, in states without paid sick leave state laws—and that was with a less transmissible variant of the virus than Delta or Omicron.

  • The Government Accountability Office reports that 766,819 employers claimed COVID paid leave credits at the cost of $7.4B through May 2021. More employers claimed COVID paid leave credits than some other forms of available business assistance, including the Employee Retention Credit, and at a lower cost.
  • FFCRA could have been more effective if it had included workers in businesses of all sizes rather than just those with fewer than 500 employees and created fewer carve-outs for health workers and emergency responders. It would have helped if the Department of Labor and the IRS had also done more aggressive outreach and enforcement. Both the DOL Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office noted multiple issues with outreach and enforcement.

2021 Retrenchment: From January through September 2021, employers with fewer than 500 workers could still receive tax credits, but Congress failed to renew the requirement that workers receive paid sick time and child care leave. The American Rescue Plan, passed in February 2021, expanded the reasons the credit could be claimed to include severe family and personal COVID needs lasting up to 12 weeks and vaccination Preliminary analysis shows the tax credit alone was less effective at extending paid sick leave to workers who needed it and may merely have subsidized employers who would have provided paid leave on their own. And now, there is no relief available at all despite an ongoing public health crisis.

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