US federal law doesn’t require paid sick leave, so states fill the gap

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What happens when U.S. residents get sick and must stay home from work? The U.S. is not among the wealthy countries with mandatory sick leave policies, says Dr. Michael Wilkes. Photo of cold/flu medicine and vitamins at home. Photo by Amy Ta.

The global COVID-19 outbreak has forced businesses to reevaluate how they operate, and it’s rekindled conversations around paid sick leave. The U.S. is the only wealthy nation without mandatory sick leave policies, according to the Center for Economic Policy Research.

“America is clearly a work-focused culture. We don't put a lot of emphasis on leave or families or wellness,” says Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis.

On today’s Daily Dose, Wilkes talks about the history of paid sick leave in the U.S. and how those policies benefit both employers and employees. 

Federal and state laws

In 1993, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for eligible employees. The federal law, however, does not require paid leave. 

Since then, California and 11 other states have passed laws requiring employers to provide paid sick leave. 

For decades, politicians have been divided along party lines over the issue, Wilkes says.

“Paid sick leave has been a hope of many Democratic lawmakers for years. But then COVID came along, and Republicans had to give up a little. … They still feel that their job-related decisions are best left in the hands of the private sector, who understands their business plan better than the government.”

Wilkes notes that in the private sector, one-third of employees currently don’t have sick leave. That includes many workers in the gig economy.  

The benefits of paid sick leave

Wilkes says paid sick leave can benefit everyone at companies.

“It's significant because employees can rest and recover when they're feeling crummy, and they can take time off to care for their kids or their spouses. For the employer, it enables sick employees to stay at home and not infect others, a choice that they might not make if they weren't being paid.”

California steps up  

Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in mid-March. It’s meant to provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave for eligible employees through the end of the year. 

But Wilkes says that despite its bipartisan support, FFCRA left out companies with more than 500 employees, and could also exempt businesses with less than 50 employees.  

In response, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order aimed at helping some excluded groups in the food sector. The order provides two weeks of paid sick leave for farmers, grocery store clerks, food delivery drivers, and fast food/restaurant staff. 

“It's intended to fill the gap left by the federal government,'' Wilkes says. “It is particularly important to those who are working on the frontlines who may feel this need to come to work even if they're sick, so that they can get a paycheck.”




Chery Glaser