As Virus Spreads, Washington Weighs Helping Workers Without Paid Leave

Democrats and Trump administration consider different ways to help

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS March 9, 2020
sick in bed

As the new strain of coronavirus—and the respiratory illness it causes, known as COVID-19—spreads, the government is encouraging employers to be lenient with paid leave benefits for workers who have the disease and others who may be quarantined after exposure to someone with the virus. 

Democrats in Congress and the Trump administration are weighing different public-policy options to help those lacking paid sick leave, which may include mandating that employers provide paid time off (PTO) for affected employees.

Last year, 73 percent of private industry workers in the U.S. had paid-sick-leave benefits available from their employers, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, leaving a sizable number of workers without paid leave if they fall ill.

We've rounded up articles and resources from SHRM Online and other trusted media outlets on options for helping employees who are affected by COVID-19 but who lack PTO for sick leave.

Trump to Pitch Payroll Tax Cut, Relief for Hourly Workers

President Trump said on March 9 he will ask Congress to cut payroll taxes and provide relief to hourly workers suffering from the economic fallout of the coronavirus. Trump said he wants help for hourly-wage workers to ensure they're "not going to miss a paycheck" and "don't get penalized for something that's not their fault." He's also mentioned small-business loans. But details of these proposals were scarce.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called for a targeted response to the disease outbreak when asked about the administration's proposal for a payroll-tax cut. "We're looking at a number of measures," he said. He expressed interest in a "surgical way" to help hourly workers and to keep the economy moving.
(Washington Post, AP and Wall Street Journal)

Democrats Introduce Bill to Require Paid Sick Leave

Democrats in the House and Senate introduced legislation that would require all U.S. employers to grant workers paid sick days in light of the coronavirus.

The legislation, unveiled by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. (the senate version is S.3415), would require all employers to let workers accrue seven days of paid sick leave and immediately provide 14 additional days when there is a public health emergency. The measures ensure that paid sick leave can be used in a public health emergency for taking care of children if schools are closed or if a worker or family member is quarantined.

"The lack of paid sick days could make coronavirus harder to contain in the United States compared with other countries that have universal sick leave policies in place," said DeLauro, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing federal health agencies.

"Workers want to do the right thing for themselves, their families, and their communities—so especially in the middle of public health crises like this, staying home sick shouldn't have to mean losing a paycheck or a job," Murray said.
(The Hill)

Trump Administration Weighs Emergency Measures

DeLauro pointed out to Vice President Mike Pence in a closed briefing that many people don't have paid leave, so if they are quarantined, this could become a problem. Pence said there were emergency measures in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to help low-income people who have been kept out of work. He promised to look into it further.

On March 3, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that the Trump administration has begun to consider measures to support workers who may not have paid sick leave. "We're looking at all different types of options on the table to address all these issues," he said. "As we come back later with recommendations, we will work with Congress."

Federal officials are also considering using a national disaster program to pay hospitals and doctors for their care of uninsured people infected with coronavirus as concerns rise over costs of treating some of the roughly 27 million Americans without health coverage.
(Politico Playbook PM and The Wall Street Journal)

Coronavirus Prompts Employers to Review Sick Leave Policies

As the coronavirus spreads, "We believe employers would be wise to review their paid-time-off practices immediately," said Francis Alvarez, an attorney with Jackson Lewis. "Employers are likely to face unique circumstances that were not anticipated when they prepared their attendance and leave policies."

At a minimum, he said, they should identify whether state or local paid-sick-leave laws cover situations where employees are directed to stay home due to their own illness, concerns they may become ill, a relative's illness, or school or business closings.

States and municipalities that mandate paid sick leave all provide PTO for an employee who is ill with COVID-19, noted Matthew Johnson, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins. The vast majority also provide PTO if the employee's eligible relative—such as a spouse, child or parent—is sick or requires treatment associated with an illness. Some paid-sick-leave laws specifically cover quarantine by public health authorities.
(SHRM Online)

Be Lenient with Sick Leave, Employers Advised

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises employers to "ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies."

Requiring employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19 to say home without pay for 14 days before returning to the workplace could encourage hourly workers who have no remaining paid sick days or other PTO not to reveal that they may pose a risk to others. "If employers force someone to stay home for two weeks without pay or make them use precious PTO, they may push people to hide where they have been or what symptoms they are experiencing, which will defeat planning to ensure that management is taking all reasonable steps to prevent the illness from spreading through the workplace," said Mark Neuberger, a litigation attorney in the Miami office of law firm Foley & Lardner LLP

"Employees who come to work with a contagious disease will spread that disease," said Bobbi Kloss, director of human capital management services at Benefit Advisors Network, a consortium of independent benefit advisory and consulting firms. "Consider providing paid leave for those employees who have no paid leave available and who are confirmed with COVID-19. In the long run it may save more dollars than it costs."
(SHRM Online) 

Senate Democrats Push for Employer Flexibility During Outbreak

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and 14 other Senate Democrats urged employers in a March 5 letter to be flexible in responding to the coronavirus. In the letter, addressed to Business Roundtable President and CEO of Joshua Bolten, Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas Donohue and National Association of Manufacturers President and CEO Jay Timmons, the senators write that employees should not be penalized or denied sick pay should they have to take time off.
(Politico Morning Shift)


[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Develop and Administer Paid Leave Programs]



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