Last year, a Federal Reserve report revealed what working-class people already knew: People were struggling even as corporate news pundits claimed the economy was in great shape. The report found that 17 percent of U.S. adults could not fully pay their bills every month, and 25 percent had skipped necessary medical care in 2018 because they could not afford it. But the statistic that went “viral” was that nearly 40 percent would have difficulty coming up with $400 in an unexpected crisis.
Well, that crisis has come in the form of the coronavirus pandemic, and it calls for far more than $400 as people struggle to pay rent, buy food, and stay safe in the face of criminal government and corporate neglect.
Donald Trump’s incompetence and concern for the stock market before human health will undoubtedly lead to many more deaths than might have occurred. But longstanding and glaring systemic flaws make it even more difficult to fight the disease, compounding the fear as workers face mass layoffs and those self-employed in the “gig” economy struggle to make ends meet.
Efforts to stem the tide are not only hampered by the lack of free health care but also the complete lack of national standards for paid sick leave and family leave. This, in the face of a pandemic that has the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and other science-based groups calling for people to stay home.
This makes perfect sense during a pandemic, but telecommuting is not an option for many people in low-paying yet essential jobs. A study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics showed that 25 percent of the work force could work from home in 2017-2018. Of these, 51 percent were in management positions, and only 7 percent were employed in maintenance and repair.
Tattered patchwork of policies
The country’s tattered patchwork of policies for paid leave forces workers to navigate an uneven system established by employers and state and local regulations. Some unionized workers may be able to negotiate better terms, but many others with no benefits are forced to take unpaid leave or work when they are sick. The heaviest burden often falls on low-paid workers, and particularly on women, often the primary caregivers for sick family members.
Having the reassurance of paid sick leave and family leave is important even in the best of times, but it becomes all the more critical during a pandemic. A recent study by the Center for Economic Policy Research, updating a 2009 study, shows that the U.S. is the only one of 22 wealthy countries around the globe with no nationally guaranteed paid leave at all.
New legislation leaves many workers unprotected
With political pressure mounting, Trump responded by signing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act on March 18. As might be expected, the law has enormous gaps that leave many workers unprotected. Perhaps the most glaring detail, but not the only one, is that corporations employing more than 500 workers are exempt. In addition, some employees in companies that hire fewer than 50 workers are not covered.
Eligible recipients may receive short-term sick leave payments and longer-term paid family leave. Employers included under the terms of the law are required to give workers up to two weeks full sick leave (up to $5,110) for those who are under quarantine or unable to work due to COVID19 symptoms. Two-thirds of regular pay for up to two weeks (up to $2,000) is allotted for individuals unable to work as they care for someone in quarantine or children whose school or day care is closed due to coronavirus.
Employees facing longer family leave absence with children whose school or day care has closed will have an initial unpaid period of 10 days before receiving up to $10,000 in benefits. Both the short-term and long-term benefit payments will be available to workers in all public agencies. The patch-work nature of the response is made clear by the fact that health care workers, emergency responders, and some others may be excluded from some of the benefits included in the law.
Companies included under provisions of the law will receive quarterly tax credits to help offset their associated costs. Provisions of the law will go into effect 15 days after enactment. Significantly, these very limited protections are not retroactive, and will expire at the end of this year.
Reflecting the patchwork quality of worker protections, several states, Washington, D.C., and various city and local governments have a range of laws designed to at least offer partial paid leave coverage, but even in these states many are excluded. Limited laws in some states are designed to go into effect only in cases of emergency, such as shutting down schools in order to protect public health.
According to the article “F.A.Q. on Stimulus Checks, Unemployment and the Coronavirus Bill,” in the March 27 New York Times, the multi-trillion-dollar coronavirus relief bill just passed by Congress and signed by President Trump — mainly benefiting the banks and giant corporations — provides some expanded unemployment benefits that are temporary and narrowly tied to the affects of the pandemic. However, there are, it appears, no additional measures addressing the inadequate, patchwork provisions for paid sick and family leave, as outlined in this article.
Access unevenly distributed
As might be expected, access to paid sick leave is unevenly distributed. A report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 90 percent of workers in private industry who are in the top quarter of wage earners have access to paid sick leave. Meanwhile, only 47 percent of workers in the lowest quarter, with average pay of $13.25 per hour, do. These statistics do not even address the fear low-wage workers could understandably have that they might be fired if they ask for unpaid sick leave. The average extent of coverage for workers in private industry is only seven days.
When it comes to paid family medical leave, as would be expected in a time of pandemic, the statistics are even worse. In private businesses, only 21 percent of full-time and 8 percent of part-time workers have any such benefit. Stark gender inequality is also evident, as 40 percent of mothers who work out of home take time off to care for sick children, as compared to 10 percent of fathers, and 56 percent of those mothers are not paid for those days.
Profit-driven policies with no regard for the well-being of workers who keep this society running are making this pandemic far more devastating. Together we must organize, get through this immediate crisis, and work to build a system that meets peoples’ needs.
KFF: Family Leave
$400 unexpected expense:
Paid Sick Leave in 22 countries including U.S. (0).