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Paid sick leave: Who gets it during the coronavirus outbreak

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/16/2020 Heather Long
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There’s growing consensus that Americans need to stay home to help prevent the spread of covid-19, especially if they feel sick or have a suspected or confirmed case of the coronavirus. The health of the nation comes first, experts say, but there’s broad concern that many workers might be forced to choose between staying home or getting paid if they feel under the weather or need to care for a sick relative.

On Saturday, the House passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act after negotiations with the White House. The bill, supported by President Trump and headed to the Senate, aims to provide money to most American workers stuck at home due to the coronavirus. If the bill is approved by the Senate and signed by Trump, it would grant two weeks of paid sick leave to most workers at 100 percent of the person’s normal salary. It would also provide up to 12 weeks of paid family leave at 67 percent of the person’s normal pay for most workers.

But there’s a catch: It doesn’t cover everyone. Small and midsize companies are required to provide these benefits. “Gig” workers and people who are self-employed also get them. But large companies with more than 500 employees are not mentioned in the bill. Experts say that’s a significant loophole. Still, 89 percent of workers at big companies have access to at least some paid sick leave, though the average of eight days falls well short of the 14-day quarantine prescribed for people who may have the coronavirus.

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In a worst-case scenario, 6.7 million U.S. workers could be left without any sick pay at all, according to a calculation by the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank. That’s less than 5 percent of the nation’s nearly 159 million workers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Sunday that big companies should step up and pay.

Here’s a rundown of who qualifies for sick and paid leave according to the legislation.

Employers with 500 or fewer workers have to provide paid sick leave and family leave. Small and midsize companies are required to provide 14 days of paid sick leave and up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for employees affected by the coronavirus who have worked at the company for at least a month.

Sick leave is to be paid at the usual pay rate. Family leave is to be paid at two-thirds of the usual pay rate. The House capped paid sick leave at $511 per day and paid family leave at $200 per day. In other words, paid sick leave would fully compensate employees earning up to about $130,000 a year for that two-week period, and paid family leave would fully compensate employees earning up to about $75,000 a year for the three-month period, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.

Many small-business owners are worried about how to pay for these benefits, especially at a time when business across numerous industries has basically come to a halt. The bill provides a tax credit to cover the costs. The credit is applied to the tax the company normally pays for each employee’s Social Security. (This is the 6.2 percent tax employers pay on each employee’s salary.) If sick leave or family leave ends up costing more than the Social Security bill, the U.S. government will send the employer a check to cover the remaining costs. How this will be determined is up to the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service.

There is a loophole for small businesses on paid leave. Employers with fewer than 50 workers can apply for an exemption through the Labor Department from having to provide paid family leave “when the imposition of such requirements would jeopardize the viability of the business.” It is unclear how lenient the Trump administration will be. (Note that there is no small-business loophole for sick pay, according to Cynthia Ward Wikstrom of Main Street Alliance, a left-leaning advocacy group for small businesses.) 

About 35 million people work for small businesses in the United States, and 30.5 million of those workers currently have no paid family leave, according to the Center for American Progress.

Government employers must provide paid sick and family leave. The House bill says all government employers must provide these benefits to workers. The same is also true for any union workers who are part of a “multi-employer” agreement.

Gig workers get a new form of paid sick and family leave. Experts say one of the most innovative parts of the House bill is that it gives gig workers similar benefits to Americans working at small and midsize companies. People who are self-employed but work for another employer — e.g. Lyft and Uber drivers, caterers or planners for major events like South by Southwest — are eligible for a tax credit of up to two weeks of sick pay at their average pay and 12 weeks of family leave pay at two-thirds their normal rate.

These workers must show that they had to comply with a self-isolation recommendation or that they had to care for a family member or a child whose school closed due to the coronavirus. Their benefit is capped at $511 per day for paid sick leave and $200 for family leave (or the average daily income the person usually receives if it is less than those amounts).

The tax credit can be applied against a person’s income taxes and it is refundable, meaning taxpayers will get a government rebate if their sick or family leave pay was greater than their tax bill.

The majority of workers at big companies already have paid sick leave. Since the bill was released, it has been criticized for not covering all workers. For example, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents grocery, retail and food-processing workers, blasted Congress for “gutting” the benefits by excluding giant employers.

Many workers at big firms receive some form of paid sick leave, but it isn’t always a full two weeks. As of March 2019, 89 percent of workers at large private-sector establishments had access to paid sick leave, according to the National Compensation Survey from the Labor Department. Employers with 500 or more workers on average offer eight days of paid sick leave after one year of service, according to the Labor Department, while companies with fewer than 100 workers on average offer six days, according to the Labor Department.

Mnuchin said Sunday that “big companies can afford these things.” Pelosi echoed that sentiment, tweeting Sunday that she does not support “subsidizing corporations to provide benefits to workers that they should already be providing.”

In recent days, some big employers such as Walmart and Uber have announced special paid leave policies to help workers dealing with the coronavirus. But not all policies are equal. Darden Restaurants, for example, the parent company of Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse with about 180,000 workers, is offering 40 hours of paid sick leave, which is half of what small and midsize firms are required to provide.

Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, estimates that about 7 million workers at large firms might “needlessly fall through the cracks” because the House bill excludes big business. That’s similar to the Center for American Progress calculation, although both organization say that could grow substantially for people missing out on paid family leave.

You don’t have to have the coronavirus to get the benefit. The two weeks of paid sick leave apply to anyone told to quarantine or trying to get a test or preventive care. That’s a broad definition. The Internal Revenue Service will probably have to come up with an exact rule, but it’s clear Congress wants to avoid a situation in which everyone is trying to get a doctor’s note to qualify.

Qualifying for family leave is even easier. A person is eligible to take up to three months of paid leave to adhere to a quarantine recommendation or to care for an at-risk family member. This includes caring for a child whose school or child-care facility is closed due to the coronavirus.

The benefits are in place for a year. The House bill covers coronavirus-related sick leave taken during the next 12 months.

Many part-time workers are covered. The bill says part-time employees also get paid sick leave equivalent to the number of hours they typically work during a two-week period. So if a person usually works 20 hours a week, they are eligible for up to 40 hours of pay. (Remember, this particular bill does not mandate paid sick leave for workers at big companies, so part-time workers might not be covered at those employers.)

It is unclear how much it will cost. Congress did not put a price tag on this part of the bill. It wasn’t an oversight. Lawmakers simply have no idea how many Americans are going to need these benefits or for how long. In an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Mnuchin predicted the cost would be “significant, but not huge.”

Economists mostly agree that now is not the time to be worrying about the deficit. Borrowing costs are at all-time lows right now, making it inexpensive for the government to take out loans to pay for the coronavirus response. The bill also stipulates that Congress will put money into the Social Security Trust Funds to cover the costs of the program so there won’t be any decline in Social Security funds.

“We need to get economic relief to the people who are impacted by this,” Mnuchin said Sunday.

There’s concern about how quickly the money will flow. Experts say one of the biggest issues with these new benefits is that they are largely being paid for by tax credits. That means small businesses and gig workers will have to apply to the Internal Revenue Service to get a tax credit — or a tax refund if a person’s tax bill is not as large as the cost of their paid sick and family leave.

Mnuchin pledged over the weekend to get this process up and running as quickly as possible, but it will take some time to create the forms and procedures.

Small-business groups have already voiced concerns over the fact that restaurants and travel and hospitality companies have seen sales plummet. They do not have the cash on hand to start paying these benefits.

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