The coronavirus pandemic has fueled the demand for American workers to be provided with paid sick leave at their jobs, as essential workers risked not only contracting coronavirus but also losing two weeks of income if they tested positive for the virus.
US workers receive far fewer days off than workers in other major industrialized nations, and work an average of four to eight more hours a week than the average worker in Europe. More than 32 million workers in the US had no paid sick days off before the pandemic, and low-wage workers are less likely to have paid sick leave and other benefits such as health insurance.
Esperanza Jimenez, a janitor in the Miami area for an office cleaning contractor, lives with her son and his three daughters, and relies on her income to send money to her 90-year-old mother in Nicaragua.
While working as an essential worker during the pandemic, Jimenez contracted Covid-19 in late December 2020 and spent several days in the hospital. While out sick from work, she didn’t receive any sick leave compensation from her employer because it was exempt from the federal paid leave requirement.
“I was worried about my bills, because it doesn’t matter if you’re sick or not, you still have to pay the bills,” said Jimenez. “When I left the hospital I still was getting these horrible muscular pains all over my body, these terrible headaches and a hoarseness in my throat, but I can’t miss any work because they’re not going to pay me for my days off.”
Though government action like the Cares Act and American Rescue Plan Act expanded paid sick leave to millions of workers in the US, paid leave advocates and workers are now pushing for a permanent solution, as the US is the only major nation in the world without a federal paid leave policy.
“It’s something we should have had in place years ago,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All, a campaign of several organizations advocating for a federal paid leave policy for medical and family issues.
“The pandemic put into focus what a crisis this has been in the making. When the global pandemic hit, we weren’t prepared and one of the first things Congress did was put into place a temporary paid leave law, knowing it would save lives and jobs.”
Veronica Gonzales works two jobs, one at Taco Bell and the other at the fast-food chain Jack in the Box, in Alameda, California. Through the pandemic, she’s had to fight to receive paid time off for quarantining while her son was hospitalized from Covid-19, and even went into work recently while sick.
“Working during the pandemic has been extremely stressful for us,” said Gonzales. “We have to work. We have to be paid and we can’t afford not to be paid.”
Nija Phelps of Milford, Connecticut, a Paid Leave for All advocate, became involved in the campaign after she and her husband had to quit their jobs and move to Michigan in 2013 to care for her mother-in-law, who was recovering from heart surgery. Neither of them had any paid leave to keep their jobs and income.
“Life was very much just up in the air. We didn’t really know what was going to happen. As she got stronger, we felt better about it, but there were struggles for all of us,” said Phelps. “To not have an employer or government helping with that, it’s frightening, it’s cruel and it’s really unnecessary because we know we can make it work not just because other countries have been doing it for decades, but there are workable plans and so many other states are adopting it.”
Paid leave policies have passed in California, New York, Washington, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Colorado, Oregon and the District of Columbia, and local ordinances have passed in cities and counties around the US.
Angel Maldonado, a public transit security officer, is pushing for paid sick leave to be provided to contracted county employees in Miami-Dade county, Florida.
In 2018, he had to return to work soon after surgery for prostate cancer. He wore a catheter on the job for two months, which often leaked. Now he is scheduled to have back surgery and is worried he will have to return to work while he’s still recovering because he can’t afford to live without the income.
“The situation was very difficult. I’m the only one who works in the house and my wife, who is retired and on disability, depends on me,” said Maldonado. “It’s not fair. We’re human beings and we have biological needs just like anyone else.”