There may be no “magic bullet” yet devised that could turn back the coronavirus let alone spare the world the growing economic harm associated with it, but there is something President Donald Trump and Congress could do right now that would surely help. It is simple. It is effective. And, if anything, it is overdue. What the U.S. needs as soon as possible is a paid sick leave mandate that allows workers or members of their families with symptoms of illness to stay home and take the day off to care for themselves or a loved one. This common-sense practice would not only hamper the spread of COVID-19 but it would potentially put money in the pockets of average Americans and boost confidence that the consumer economy is not facing collapse.
Here in Maryland, we know a thing or two about paid sick leave. Two years ago, the General Assembly approved the Maryland Healthy Working Families Act (overriding a veto by the state’s Republican governor in the process) that requires companies with 15 employees or more to offer at least 40 hours of paid sick leave per year. The policy was criticized by Gov. Larry Hogan at the time as “job killing,” but in the two years since it became law, there’s little evidence of that. Not only is Maryland’s unemployment rate below the nation average (ranking 21st among the states as of December), the Free State’s median household income of $81,868 is top among states, according to the U.S. Census, including nearby Virginia ($71,564) where the state legislature seriously considered a paid sick leave mandate during its 2020 session only to see the measure fail as time ran out this week.
The benefit of paid sick leave is obvious. The last thing Americans should want to think about is how the line cook at their favorite restaurant, the taxi driver giving them a ride, the clerk restocking the grocery store produce and so on and so on are still at their posts despite a cough or fever. And that’s especially true given that the coronavirus is far from the only disease the can be transmitted through casual contact. The sad reality is that too many families live paycheck to paycheck to sacrifice a day of work if they don’t have paid sick leave. And that’s a common experience. An estimated one in four U.S. workers does not have that benefit. Even more simply don’t qualify for the benefit because they are too new to their jobs. Staying home when feeling unwell is strongly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vice President Mike Pence even listed it in his briefing with reporters on Monday. It is reportedly among the ideas that his coronavirus task force is recommending.
Maryland is hardly alone in its sick leave mandate. Eleven other states have some version of it: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine (effective next year), Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. And that’s not even counting major cities with their own mandates from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles. Would suddenly having to provide sick leave to employees that weren’t provided this benefit in the past pose a hardship to some employers? That’s quite possible but, in most cases, one imagines a worsening outbreak would harm these companies far worse. Just look at the record drops in the stock markets in recent days. Full-fledged recessions have been caused by lesser events.
This much is certain: Paid sick leave policies reduce the spread of disease. Studies have shown this. Indeed, it is believed that African American and Latino workers are more apt to contract the flu, in part, because they are less likely to have a sick leave benefit. And while government-mandated paid sick leave is generally seen as a Democratic initiative, there is surely no political harm to President Trump and Republicans in Congress if they belatedly climb on board a policy one-quarter of the nation already practices. And while we’re on that subject, it surely wouldn’t hurt for lawmakers in Maryland to expand the sick leave benefit so that, for example, people could stay home to care for a ward and not just a blood relation as House Bill 880 (approved this week by the House of Delegates on a 115-23 vote) proposes. It’s surely a lot easier to keep the sick quarantined when employers accommodate that choice.