Coronavirus highlights the need for all workers to have paid sick leave

As the United States and the world grapple with the outbreak of the novel form of coronavirus, known as COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control is advising that Americans who display symptoms stay home.

For workers without access to paid time off, that’s easier said than done.

Paid time off boosts public health

Research shows that paid sick time helps combat the spread of infectious diseases, such as influenza. In states where workers do have paid sick day protections, the spread of flu is reduced by up to 20 percent. Conversely, without paid sick time, workers come into work sick because they can’t afford to take time off.

Working while sick prolongs illness in individuals and increases spread among the community. This is especially concerning in sectors that rely on low-wage workers who often lack paid sick time, such as retail food service. A majority of Americans who work in the fast food industry report “always” working while sick, with another 38 percent “sometimes” working while sick.

Maine’s new PTO law will help protect the public health, but only to a point

In 2019, Maine enacted a first-in-the-nation statewide law for paid time off, which guarantees access to paid leave for an estimated 493,000 workers — roughly 85 percent of the state’s workforce.

While the law won’t take effect until 2021 — likely too late to blunt the spread of COVID-19 in Maine — its implementation will undoubtedly benefit public health. As more and more workers are able to stay home when they’re sick, future contagious illnesses will have a harder time spreading throughout the community.

However, there are still many workers who will be excluded from the state’s paid time off law. Workers at businesses with fewer than 10 employees will have no guarantee of paid sick leave, nor will employees at seasonal businesses. MECEP estimates that exclusions in the law language will leave roughly 40,000 workers without guaranteed access to paid sick time.

MECEP’s recent Worker Experience Survey, conducted as research for last year’s State of Working Maine report, found that Mainers who work for small businesses are least likely to be provided sick leave. More than one-third of workers in businesses with fewer than 10 employees have no paid sick time. That’s twice the rate of employees in businesses with more than 100 employees.

Future Legislatures should make PTO a universal benefit

Our nation’s ability to weather potential pandemics relies not only on our public health infrastructure, but on the rules of our economy, which dictate whether Americans have the option to follow public health guidance.  Ultimately, a federal policy to provide sick leave to all workers will go further to protect public health — not only from pandemics, but from routine, localized outbreaks of contagious illness.

Maine became a national leader by enacting the first-ever statewide policy for paid time off last year. The law will meaningfully improve the lives of the majority of Maine’s workers. And it will protect public health by giving many sick workers the option to stay home — just as the CDC recommends.

However, those public health benefits would be even stronger with a truly universal policy. These benefits extend to workers, their families, and many of the business interests that stood in opposition to such a policy.

Future Legislatures should expand the new paid time off policy to cover all workers, so that every Mainer can do their part to reduce the spread of illness.