Pandemic Hasn’t Changed Partisan Divide on Paid Time Off

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Three Democratic-led states have passed paid leave laws since March 2020.

This story was originally posted by Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

DENVER — Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, legislators in Colorado, New Mexico and New York have approved laws that require businesses to offer paid sick days. Colorado voters also approved a paid family leave program.

But the pandemic, and the deaths and economic devastation it’s wrought, haven’t really changed the paid time off debate in the states.

Democrats and labor advocates say that now more than ever, workers need to be able to stay home when they’re sick or caring for a family member. Republicans and business advocates, meanwhile, say now’s not the time for imposing costly new mandates on employers.

This past year’s paid leave laws—like most of the prior laws—were enacted in blue states, meaning workers in left-leaning states will continue to have more access to the benefits those measures bring.

New Mexico state Rep. Christine Chandler, lead sponsor of her state’s new paid sick days law, said the pandemic boosted support for her bill—at least among fellow Democrats. “People were very conscious of the fact that illness spreads in the workplace,” she said. “I think that did lend itself to the success of our being able to get the bill through.”

The bill passed without a single GOP vote. “We’ve got all of these small businesses that barely survived COVID, and now you want to add another layer of bureaucratic requirements on top of that,” said Republican state Sen. Bill Sharer.

Texas’ Republican-led legislature last week passed a bill that would prevent cities and counties from requiring employers to provide certain benefits, such as paid leave. Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have paid sick leave ordinances, though they’ve been blocked by court rulings.

"Businesses need certainty and predictability," GOP state Sen. Brandon Creighton, the bill’s sponsor, said before the April Senate vote, according to the Austin American-Statesman. "Now it's our duty to provide certainty so they have a fighting chance to keep their doors open." Creighton’s office said he didn’t have time to respond to Stateline’s request for comment.

The same partisan dynamics are playing out in Congress. President Joe Biden backs a bill that would require employers to give workers at least seven paid sick days a year; he also wants businesses to provide 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. Current federal law requires 12 weeks of family or medical leave from businesses with at least 50 employees, but the leave is unpaid.

Biden included the paid leave proposal in his sweeping infrastructure plan, which faces strong Republican opposition and an uphill battle in the U.S. Senate.

Many states and cities have passed their own paid time off laws in recent years. Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., require certain employers to offer paid sick days; nine states and Washington, D.C., require employers to offer paid family and medical leave; and two states have general leave laws that require employers to offer paid time off for a range of reasons, according to A Better Balance, a New York City-based nonprofit that advocates for workers.

Some of the laws have yet to be implemented. New Mexico’s law, for instance, won’t require employers to offer sick days until July 2022.

Three-quarters of private-sector workers had paid sick days in March 2020, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only a fifth of them had paid family and medical leave.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a flurry of emergency federal, state and local sick day laws.

Then-President Donald Trump signed a temporary law last March that required businesses with fewer than 500 employees to give workers up to two weeks of paid sick leave due to coronavirus-related symptoms, quarantine requirements or caregiving responsibilities. The law also required employers to give workers up to an additional 10 weeks of paid family leave to care for children whose schools or day care providers were closed.

The federal law offered businesses tax credits to pay for the new benefits. It expired at the end of 2020, but employers can still qualify for the tax credits if they voluntarily offer workers paid time off due to COVID-19.

Several cities, and states such as California, New Jersey and Oregon also passed laws last year requiring employers to grant workers paid time off for pandemic-related reasons.

Whether due to fear of the virus or the new laws, some businesses expanded paid sick days between March and May 2020. About a quarter of private-sector employers created sick leave policies or added days to their policies during that period, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found. Ninety percent of employers said the changes were temporary. 

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Colorado, New York and New Mexico created a new legal right to sick days.

"Even before the coronavirus pandemic, we knew that no one should have to make the unimaginable choice between keeping their job or caring for themselves or a loved one,” New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last year in an online statement. “This public health crisis has put that need in even greater relief."

Under the New York law, which was tucked into the fiscal 2021 state budget, state residents can earn one hour of leave for every 30 hours they work. Larger employers are required to offer more sick days than small businesses.

When the budget was signed last year, the first wave of COVID-19 cases was ripping through New York. Cuomo had ordered nonessential businesses to close, and the economy was in free fall. 

Republicans opposed the paid sick day provisions. “People are more worried about their jobs, as opposed to whether or not they're going to have the appropriate sick leave,” then-Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan said during floor remarks.

In New Mexico, Republicans and business groups likewise opposed Chandler’s sick leave bill, which also will allow state residents to earn one hour of leave for every 30 hours worked, up to 64 hours a year. New Mexicans will be able to use sick days to care for themselves, family members or close friends.

“It just felt like it was going to hinder economic development, as well as be a hardship on our businesses, when they’d already been through so much,” said Jamie Church, president and CEO of the Farmington, New Mexico, Chamber of Commerce.

Church noted that workers start accruing sick leave on their first day on the job. She said it could be difficult for some businesses to track the benefit, particularly for part-time and seasonal workers. “It’s just another thing for small businesses to be dealing with,” she said.

Sharer, who runs a debt-collection business in Farmington, said he doesn’t think the state mandate was necessary. “The reality is, no small New Mexico business wants a sick employee coming in,” he said.

Business groups’ concerns are “shortsighted,” Chandler said, and offering better benefits can boost morale and productivity, she argued. “People accommodate, the businesses adjust,” she said. “And it’s not the crisis that I think the business community, or at least the organized business community, likes to predict.”

Colorado’s Democratic-led legislature also passed a paid sick time law last year. And voters approved a paid family and medical leave ballot initiative in November.

It’s harder for lawmakers to create the pricier and more expansive family and medical leave programs than to require businesses to offer sick days, said Sherry Leiwant, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance. Few businesses offer paid family and medical leave, in part because they can’t afford to.

“It’s not a common benefit. That’s why it’s necessary, really, to have a law that requires it,” Leiwant said of paid family leave. “But I think that legislators are reluctant to say to all employers in America, ‘You have to give 12 weeks of [paid] leave.’”

To expand access to paid leave, some states have created social insurance programs. The Colorado ballot initiative, for instance, directs the state to create a program funded by a payroll tax on employers and employees. When it launches in 2024, the program will fund at least 12 weeks of leave for eligible workers.

Polls conducted before the pandemic showed a similar level of support for the ballot initiative as the final vote, said Jared Make, a Denver-based vice president at A Better Balance.

“That same level of support existed before the pandemic,” he said, “and I don’t know if it shifted the debate or the outcome.”

Sophie Quinton is a staff writer at Stateline.

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