This post was co-authored by Joo Ning Lim, a public policy intern from Western Michigan University
- The U.S. is among a small group of nations that do not guarantee citizens access to paid sick leave.
- While Michigan’s 2018 “Paid Medical Leave Act” expanded coverage at the state level, many Michigan workers have little to no access to paid sick leave.
- Paid sick leave isn’t just an individual workplace benefit—it is an important aspect of population health.
As Michigan approaches the one-year mark since its first known coronavirus death on March 18, 2020, the death toll has reached an alarming number with more than 16,000 Michiganders and over half a million Americans now deceased. Health experts advise the public to continue physical distancing and stay home if they are sick, but this is not always possible for the many employees who lack access to paid sick leave. In this way, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated gaps in the social safety net and the ways these gaps affect public health.
Attempts to amend Michigan statutes to require paid sick leave in 2018 caused much consternation. Much of the debate focused on economic issues. The current pandemic illustrates why a health in all policies approach to policy-making can change the conversation and paid sick leave policies may have utility beyond the immediate benefits to sick workers.
Paid sick time has been proven to bring multiple benefits for employers, workers, and the general public, such as greater workforce stability, increased productivity (from healthy workers), and reduced turnover rates. When sick workers are able to stay home, they can receive medical care and recover faster. Most importantly, paid sick time helps prevent the spread of infectious diseases to customers and coworkers and outbreaks can be contained, protecting the public as a result. Without paid sick days, workers are more likely to go to work even when they have contagious illnesses, and the economic fallout disproportionately affected low-income workers and communities of color.
Existing Sick Leave Laws
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year, but only an estimated 56 percent of the workforce is covered with eligibility limited by work hours, size of the organization, and employee tenure, among other factors. Among those who are eligible for leave under the FMLA, many cannot afford to do so because the leave is unpaid, which is burdensome for workers who lack personal resources and/or social support.
Absent federal standards for paid sick leave, many states have enacted their own. In Michigan, paid sick leave laws have been subject to an ongoing debate for several years.
In 2018, an initiated statute to guarantee paid sick leave was enacted by the legislature, preempting a public vote. After enacting this “earned sick time” ballot initiative, the legislature dramatically scaled back its provisions.
If the initiated statute had not been amended, it would have required employers to provide nine days of paid sick time per year; employers with less than 10 employees would have been required to provide up to five days per year. It would have applied to all employees (except federal government employees), and would have provided protections on a broader scale to cover the majority of Michigan’s workers.
The Paid Medical Leave Act exempts employers with fewer than 50 employees and increases the amount of hours needed to accrue an hour of paid leave. The Act also does not protect workers from retaliation by employers for utilizing paid sick time. While it marginally expanded access to paid sick time in Michigan, the Paid Medical Leave Act has left approximately 55 percent of Michigan workers without access to this benefit.
Michigan is also one of many states that prohibits local paid sick leave laws. State law restricts local governments from creating paid sick time ordinances, among other prohibitions on regulating employment. The goal of these prohibitions is to alleviate the burden for employers, in particular small employers with limited staff and resources. The lack of municipal sick leave laws also maintains statewide consistency for employers. On the other hand, this lack of local control creates an obligation for the state and/or federal government to address the issue.
The debate continues as state policymakers introduce legislation to expand access to paid sick leave for Michigan workers.
Paid Sick Leave and COVID-19
While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that people who have symptoms of COVID-19 to self-quarantine for 10 days, or seven days after receiving a negative test result, current Michigan law only requires employers to provide eligible workers with a total of five sick days, and business owners with fewer than 50 employees are not required to provide paid sick leave.
The lack of paid sick leave when the COVID-19 pandemic hit left workers and the public unprepared to deal with this major public health risk. As low-wage workers are less likely to have access to paid leave, they have faced higher risks of exposure to the coronavirus, contributing to observed health disparities. Even with the development and distribution of efficacious vaccines, supply does not yet meet the demand for vaccination.
Necessary public health precautions and guidelines should be upheld, but many workers continue to struggle economically and physically from the broad impact of the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected low-income workers and communities of color. In higher proportions than whites, people of color often lack financial support and have far less liquidity to recover from economic downturns due to intergenerational wealth gaps, leaving them disproportionately uninsured and at a disadvantage when it comes to financial resources and employment benefits.
Reaction to the coronavirus pandemic created the first widespread federal requirement guaranteeing employees paid sick leave. Congress enacted temporary legislation to mandate paid sick leave in response to the pandemic. However, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which provided workers with up to 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave and 10 weeks of emergency paid leave for child care, expired in December 2020. One study showed that the FFCRA effectively helped flatten the curve of COVID-19 transmissions and was associated with a decrease of approximately 400 cases per day in states where the FFCRA gave workers new access to paid sick leave; the study also showed fewer cases in states that had enacted mandated paid sick leave policies prior to the FFCRA. These findings demonstrate that paid sick leave is an essential public health tool to fight against infectious disease outbreaks.
Future Policy Implications
Many low-income and essential workers still lack access to paid sick leave, and this bears serious public health consequences, especially during a global pandemic. Arguments against expanding sick time often focus on increased labor costs and the resultant potential for higher unemployment rates. Evidence suggests that paid sick leave laws have minimal to no effects on employment or wages. While businesses might be concerned about increased liability and costs, the countervailing benefits of extending paid sick leave for all workers are also worth considering. As with many policies that invest in human capital, short-term investment costs often yield long-term gains.
Paid sick leave policies might be better thought of as public health policies rather than workforce benefits as paid sick leave is absolutely critical in protecting the public from diseases and illnesses in the event of an outbreak. Employees with sick leave are also more likely to utilize preventative care and routine screenings, yielding additional population health benefits, and, by extension, reducing health care costs in the long run.
The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the importance of paid sick time policies, along with revealing many other gaps in the social safety net. While governments at all levels are still working to deal with the virus, it is important to consider that this is unlikely to be the last global pandemic we face. It is not enough to just plug the holes COVID-19 has revealed; we need to redesign systems and structures that work for people with or without the added stress of major disease outbreaks.