During Coronavirus, Who Gets Paid Sick Leave?

By Richard Dahl on March 20, 2020

As COVID-19 continues to expand, many companies are asking their employees to work from home.

But many workers don't have that option. About a quarter of them, in fact, get no sick leave at all.

They are left with a tough choice: Get paid or stay home.

This is clearly not a healthy situation for those workers or for the broader population. So it's gratifying that the federal government has recognized that this is an emergency situation. Workers need to stay home and be paid — for everyone's benefit.

Congress Takes Action

On March 18, President Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act following passage by the Senate, 90-8. The House passed it 363-40 five days earlier.

Meanwhile, Trump has indicated that he favors even more aid, in the form of direct payments to all workers who have been idled by the coronavirus. Details may be announced by the end of March, but reports indicate that these workers might expect to receive checks equaling two weeks of their pay.

For many workers who are staying at home with coronavirus (or suspected coronavirus) this would at least double their government payments. The Coronavirus Response Act would provide these workers, including those with no symptoms but who are ordered to quarantine at home, paid sick leave at 100% of their salary for two weeks, up to a cap of $511 per day.

In addition, the Act would provide up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for parents caring for children whose schools have closed, up to 67% of their pay with a daily cap of $200.

Who Does It Cover?

It's important to note that these provisions of the Coronavirus Response Act don't cover all workers. Companies with more than 500 employees would be exempt, on the apparent assumption that they already provide employees eight days of sick leave on average and may be expected to provide more. And companies with fewer than 50 employees would be exempt if paying the benefits would "jeopardize the viability of the business."

Companies would free up money to pay the additional sick pay by getting a credit that they would apply to the tax they pay for every employee's Social Security. It the amount they pay for sick leave is more than the Social Security tax, the government would send them a check for the difference.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, says that about 27% of private sector workers lack any sick leave. The organization also estimates that about 12% of workers — mostly those who work for small companies that could seek an exemption from the sick-pay requirement by claiming it would jeopardize their business — would still lack sick leave after the Coronavirus Response Act is passed. (Presumably, however, these workers would receive the payments that Trump is proposing.)

Tax Credits and Unemployment Benefits

Gig workers, meanwhile, are not being overlooked. These freelancers do their work without paid sick days. So if they get sick or if their work slows down or grinds to a halt, they can't point to a definite hourly salary. The Coronavirus Response Act provides them a tax credit equal to two weeks of their average pay and 12 weeks of family pay at 67% of their normal pay.

In addition to these measures, of course, state governments have taken a large role in providing relief in handling a tsunami of applications for unemployment benefits, many of them from restaurant and bar workers and others in the hospitality industry.

These are uncertain times with an unknown future. It can be heartening to know that the oft-maligned government, federal and state alike, is taking steps to ease some of the pain.

Unfortunately, however, the long-term effects of COVID-19 on our physical and economic health are anyone's guess.

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