House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday night celebrated the coronavirus legislation that passed early Saturday as providing paid sick leave to American workers affected by the pandemic.
She neglected to mention the fine print.
In fact, the bill guarantees sick leave only to about 20 percent of private-sector workers. Big employers like McDonald’s and Amazon are not required to provide any paid sick leave, while companies with fewer than 50 employees can seek hardship exemptions from the Trump administration.
“If you are sick, stay home,” Vice President Mike Pence said at a news conference on Saturday afternoon. “You’re not going to miss a pay check.”
But that’s simply not true. Sick workers should stay home, but there is no guarantee in the emergency legislation that most of them will get paid.
The White House and congressional Republicans, who insisted on the exemptions as the price of bipartisan support for the legislation, bear the primary responsibility for the indefensible decision to prioritize corporate profits in the midst of a public health emergency.
Instead of pressing executives to support a comprehensive sick leave law, President Trump held a Rose Garden pep rally for corporate America on Friday afternoon, showering praise on the chief executives of big employers including Walmart, Target and toner.
But House Democrats also failed to act in the public interest. Paying sick workers to stay at home is both good policy and good politics. Why not pass a bill that required all employers to provide paid sick leave and then force Republicans to explain their objections to the public?
The bill does require some employers to provide full-time workers with up to 10 days of paid leave. But the requirement does not apply to the nation’s largest employers — companies with 500 or more workers, who together employ roughly 54 percent of all workers.
After a Waffle House employee tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this month, the company refused to promise it would pay other sick workers to stay home. Now, under the new bill, it would qualify for the big-company exemption. Would Ms. Pelosi please explain why the House decided not to require Waffle House to protect its workers and customers by paying for sick leave?
The legislation also provides some compensation for workers who need to take longer leaves under the Family and Medical Leave Act — but this too excludes workers at big companies.
And the bill allows the Labor Department to grant hardship exemptions to businesses with fewer than 50 employees. That category includes another 26 percent of the work force, meaning that fully 80 percent of workers may not be able to cash in on Ms. Pelosi’s rhetoric.
Democrats began this process in the right place. The first draft of the coronavirus legislation included a permanent change requiring employers to allow every worker to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave, and a temporary change allowing any worker to take up to 10 days of sick leave during a public health emergency. The final draft includes only a pale shadow of those sensible requirements. The paid sick leave requirement is narrowly focused on the coronavirus; it does not even require paid sick leave during future pandemics — a contemptible signal that political leaders are already committed to not learning the lessons of this one.
Some large employers have announced voluntary grants of paid sick leave for workers affected by the coronavirus. After a Walmart employee in Kentucky tested positive for the coronavirus, the company announced it would provide up to two weeks of paid leave for workers who fall ill or are quarantined because of a confirmed exposure to the virus. Other large employers, including Target, Gap and Wawa, have made similar announcements.
But such voluntary policies are an inadequate substitute for legislation. Many large employers have not announced any changes, many of the policies that have been announced are considerably less generous than the requirements of the House legislation, and employees at those firms can hardly enforce corporate compliance with a news release.
It’s also true that big employers are generally more likely to offer standard sick leave benefits. Roughly 86 percent of workers at big companies get some kind of paid sick leave, according to federal statistics. But few workers in the United States are eligible to take 10 days of paid sick leave. And the low-wage workers who can least afford to stay home without paid leave are precisely the workers who are least likely to qualify for those standard corporate benefits.
Companies should be required to provide paid sick leave to every worker as a standard cost of doing business, and they certainly should be required to do so in the midst of a pandemic.
The House’s failure to require universal paid sick leave is an embarrassment that endangers the health of workers, consumers and the broader American public.
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