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COVID-19 and Paid Sick Leave: Obligations vs. Doing the Right Thing

File this under “stuff we shouldn’t still need to say,” but your employees shouldn’t come to work when they’re ill.  

The fact is that they often do. Some are locked in the mindset that a good soldier shows up no matter what—common cold or stomach bug be damned. Tough it out. Do whatever it takes to get the job done.  

Or, in some cases, it’s much more of a financial concern. There are plenty of workers—think those in the hospitality and food service industries, for example—who simply don’t get paid if they don’t go to work. And some literally can’t afford to take time off without pay.  

This was an issue long before COVID-19 became a pandemic. But its lightning-quick spread has hit workers in these and other service-oriented fields—those who can’t work from home—disproportionately hard. When hotels, restaurants, bars, and other public meeting places go dark, these workers can’t just log in on their laptops at home. 

A bill that was just signed into law could be a step toward providing relief to some, but not all, employees affected by the Coronavirus.  

No permanent solution, but a start?

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provides up to two weeks of paid sick leave to employees who are being tested or treated for COVID-19 or have already been diagnosed with the virus. Employees under doctors’ orders to stay home after being exposed or experiencing systems would also be eligible.  

The bill that passed the Senate calls for these payments to be capped, however, in addition to limiting the amount that employees with affected family members and/or dealing with their children’s school closures would receive.  

And far from all U.S. workers will be eligible for these benefits. In fact, there are some fairly large loopholes.  

For instance, the bill limited eligibility for 12 weeks of paid family leave only to parents who are caring for children whose schools have closed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. And small businesses under 50 employees would be exempt from paying sick leave.  

For that matter, larger organizations—companies with 500-plus employees—aren’t even addressed in the bill. The U.S. Labor Department reports that close to 90% of workers at such companies are afforded some type of paid sick leave. The average duration, however, is eight days; barely half of the two-week period that those exposed to the Coronavirus are being told to quarantine.  

Setting an example

So, large employers aren’t obligated to provide paid sick leave in the midst of this pandemic. But that doesn’t mean they can’t. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin have strongly urged them to do so. 

Some have already acted. Consider: 

  • Walmart, which has already announced that quarantined workers will receive up two weeks of pay, with additional pay for those not able to come back to work after 14 days.  
  • Starbucks, who have taken a similar step, providing employees with up to 14 days of “catastrophe pay,” available to workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, or have been exposed to someone who has. 
  • Darden Restaurants, parent company to Olive Garden and operator of Longhorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, and Yard House, is offering 40 hours, or roughly five days a year, of paid sick leave to hourly workers who previously did not have access to such time.  
  • All Amazon employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two weeks’ pay, in addition to unlimited unpaid time off for all hourly employees through the end of March. The company is also establishing the Amazon Relief Fund, with a $25 million initial contribution focused on supporting the company’s independent delivery service partners and their drivers, Amazon Flex participants, and seasonal employees under financial stress during this time, according to an Amazon statement. 

Mark Englizian, senior strategy advisor for the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and chair of i4cp’s Total Rewards Board, calls the FFCRA legislation “desperately needed,” but also wonders if other large employers will follow these examples.    

“Will [paid sick leave] morph into a convention that becomes permanent for most companies? A best practice?” asks Englizian, who is also a former CHRO of the Walgreen Company. “What are the unintended consequences? Who is left behind with this legislation? And, more importantly, how do the pillars of power shift going forward—the government, labor unions, the business community?” 

Indeed, there’s still much that remains to be seen, with regard to COVID-19 in a broad sense, and with this legislation that’s intended to mitigate its impact on thousands of U.S. employees. But the crisis still presents an opportunity for American employers to step up and take care of their workers, says Englizian.  

“We need to come together, and business leaders large and small are in a prime position to lead the way.”