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State HR officials are concerned that if they can’t find a way to extend paid sick leave benefits, employees will start showing up to work contagious.
On Dec. 31, 2020, a major paid sick leave provision of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act expired. That was just before the latest coronavirus surge brought the seven-day average of new cases on Jan. 9 to 254,000—up from 188,000 on Dec. 31, according to New York Times data.
Many states were confronted with the issue of whether sick leave policies for their own workers needed to be adjusted to ensure that employees who had used up sick leave balances could stay away from work if they were sick. The matter was even more complex for employees who couldn’t work remotely and were potentially contagious. State leaders were also concerned about the end of required coronavirus emergency paid sick leave and expanded paid family medical leave for private sector firms that had previously been covered by the federal act.
Not all elements of the FFCRA sick leave package disappeared on Dec. 31. Tax credits to help businesses finance paid sick leave were renewed as part of the $900 billion stimulus bill signed by former President Trump in late December. But gone was the requirement for companies to provide 80 hours of paid sick leave for absence issues related to the pandemic. Also gone: A family leave element that mandated that affected companies and public sector organizations provide employees with two-thirds pay for an additional 10 weeks if they could not work due to pandemic-related closures to school or child-care programs.
This issue is not just important to the employees who may be affected by the Dec. 31 expiration date, but also to a society that desperately seeks to fight contagion while the covid-19 pandemic is still a huge problem. As the Urban Institute stated in a January 2021 report, one of the “primary public policy goals of paid-sick-days legislation [is] to improve public health by slowing the spread of contagious illnesses.”
The data support that argument. An October 2020 study published in Health Affairs of FFRCA sick leave policies concluded that for states that previously had no paid sick leave mandates they appeared to prevent about 400 covid-19 cases a day compared to the period before the legislation.
In the early part of 2021, the worry for many state human resources officials is that workers who have run out of paid sick leave might think twice about staying home if they had mild or symptomless coronavirus cases. “The covid cases are the highest they’ve ever been,” said one Arizona HR official who spent much of the past year working and providing guidance on FFCRA issues. “And now someone with mild symptoms might come to work just to make sure to get that paycheck. This exposes us to a greater risk, for sure.”
For many years, paid sick leave has been a controversial topic for businesses, which have often objected to state or local mandates they view as fiscally burdensome. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 25% of private sector employees lack paid sick leave, compared to 9% in the public sector. But those percentages tell only part of the story. In private companies, paid sick leave is more frequently a benefit for higher-paid workers. Only about half of employees whose pay is in the lowest quartile have access to paid sick leave.
Advocacy groups have long argued in favor of this benefit. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, San Francisco was the first city to require employers to provide paid sick leave in 2007; 13 states, the District of Columbia and 20 local governments have now followed. But according to the Urban Institute, 23 states have passed preemptive laws that prevent local governments from mandating paid leave by private employers.
As the FFCRA sick leave provisions were being debated, business groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spoke out against making the mandates permanent. Opposition to broader paid sick leave also contributed to the decision to limit the coverage mandate to businesses between 50 and 500 employees, and to allow both companies and states to exempt health care workers and first responders.
Now, a key provision in President Biden’s $1.9 trillion additional stimulus package asks Congress to reinstate paid sick leave provisions that were eliminated at the end of December, while also removing previous size restrictions, including the ability to exempt health care workers and first responders. The new proposal also provides federal subsidies for paid sick leave to state and local governments and for employers of fewer than 500 employees and calls for the paid sick leave provisions to be in effect until Sept. 30, 2021.
While waiting to see the outcome of federal legislation, states are taking a variety of approaches to tackling the issue. Some, like Arizona, did not take any action to extend benefits similar to the FFCRA to state employees after the benefits stopped at the end of 2020. Others, like Louisiana, have extended benefits similar to what was offered through the FFCRA through March 31, 2021. This combined paid sick leave and family leave was provided by the Louisiana Civil Service Commission and is available to classified employees in the executive branch.
“We thought this was important based on the surge in cases and the prevalence in the state right now for employees who may have been exposed to covid or who are experiencing covid-related symptoms,” said Byron Decoteau Jr., Louisiana’s state civil service director. He adds that sufficient sick leave benefits help provide an important “incentive to quarantine” when necessary.
One state that spotted the potential problem of the FFCRA expiration date early on was Colorado. In July 2020, it enacted the Health and Families Workplace Act, putting in new permanent paid sick leave requirements for both the public and private sectors. The new law went into effect on Jan. 1.
During 2020, additional leave changes were enacted for state employees in Colorado. It began easing distinctions between annual leave, sick leave and compensatory leave earned from working overtime. It increased the leave hours that could be rolled over to the following year and ensured that changes enacted to deal with covid-19 would automatically go into effect in the future for other public health emergencies declared by the governor.
“We also allow our permanent employees to go negative up to 40 hours, if they’ve exhausted all their accrued leave,” said Ramona Gomoll, chief human resource officer for Colorado. “We wanted to get in front of this and give our employees a safety net. We came to realize that whether or not employees needed to use sick leave, we needed to deal with their fear of the unknown.
“In my mind, employees may think twice about coming into work sick if they have no leave to rely on. You don’t want them to have to choose between their livelihood and whether they’re coming in sick or not.”
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