yesStarting next week, Starbucks workers will no longer have access to the expanded paid sick leave that the company deployed for COVID-19 disease, isolation and vaccination. Going forward, employees will have to use any accrued sick time and vacation time they have to cover days missed in case they get sick with the virus, unless the state or city they work in requires payment. by COVID-19.
The coffee chain may be the latest major US company to scrap its more generous sick leave policies, but it’s not the first. When the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reviewed their quarantine and isolation guide 10 to 5 days late last year, for example, several major employers including Walmart and Amazon reduced the amount of paid time off employees could take for absences related to COVID-19.
At the same time, however, US state and local governments are enacting laws to ensure that companies operating in their jurisdictions provide workers with access to a minimum amount of paid sick leave. The question now is whether sick leave will become widespread in a post-pandemic era, or whether it will largely return to pre-pandemic norms.
Americans’ patchy access to paid sick leave
When the pandemic hit the world in early 2020, the US was alone among 22 economically highly developed countries without guaranteed paid sick time. according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. More than two years later, it still is. On September 22, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its paid annual leave benefits report that showed 77% of private industry workers received paid sick leave in March 2022. That number has barely been budgeted for since the start of the pandemic, when 75% had paid sick leave.
Coverage is also uneven among the US working population. Large companies are more likely to provide some form of sick leave than smaller companies, as the chart below shows. Even more polarizing is the salary of workers: 94% of those who earn more have sick leave, compared to only 55% of those who earn less. Such a disparity is especially because low-income essential workers, such as childcare providers and food service employees, have no choice but to report to work in person, while higher-income desk workers often they can do their work at home.
A august analysis of researchers from the Urban Institute, a left-leaning think tank, and Boston University found that worker absences rose 50% in the first two years of the pandemic compared to the previous two years, with the biggest jumps among nonwhites and low-income workers The data underscores the fact that disadvantaged populations are more likely to experience time off work due to personal or family illness, in part because their jobs have less flexibility.
At the same time, workers in this demographic are generally less likely to have paid sick leave benefits when they are unable to report to work. The Urban Institute report found that while the rate of unpaid leave increased by 60% overall, it increased by 74% for black workers and 83% for workers in households earning between $25,000 and $50,000.
These findings are significant because the pandemic has prompted governments and employers to offer more generous leave, but those efforts don’t cover all Americans and the most vulnerable have been left behind. In March 2020, the federal government offered paid leave for the first time under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, granting two weeks to workers who were sick or caring for a sick family member. The provision was limited in that it excluded businesses with 500 or more employees and allowed small employers to receive an exemption. In addition, it was temporary and expired about nine months after its promulgation.
Some states and smaller jurisdictions have established or expanded paid leave laws during the pandemic, giving Americans scattered protections based on where they work. Currently, 16 states have paid leave laws, up from 10 before 2020, according to a September report. summary of laws compiled by status line, a nonpartisan news service funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts that tracks state policies, and A Better Balance, an organization that advocates for better work and family policies. But at the same time, at least 17 states, most of which do not have their own paid leave policies, explicitly prohibit cities and counties from passing paid leave laws at the local level.
“Our focus on the US has set us up for economic failure and public health disaster,” says Chantel Boyens, a policy associate at the Urban Institute and a co-author on the paper. “We had a lot of federal, state and local action, including action by private employers, in response to the pandemic to provide people with paid leave, but overall our data shows that many workers were still not covered in some way. that allowed them to take paid time off when they were sick. It’s a missed opportunity.”
Did the pandemic catalyze lasting change?
Still, Boyens is optimistic that sick leave protections are moving in the right direction, and that the more state and local governments get on board, the more likely the federal government is to take action. But it could still take a long time. President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, which did not garner enough support in the Senate to pass, had a number of social safety net provisions, including an original request for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, which was negotiated until four weeks before. the bill died.
Some experts who track benefit trends at the company level say available government data doesn’t fully capture the nuances of paid leave trends, and that many employers are improving leave benefits even as they reverse trends. specific to COVID-19. Rich Fuerstenberg, a senior partner at Mercer Health & Benefits who studies and evaluates benefits among large employers, says companies offer more paid leave options for employees by allowing them to use sick time for family members or use the vacation time and sick time interchangeably through a paid time off (PTO) plan.
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For example, based on a 2018 Mercer poll Of employers, 18% of respondents said sick leave should only be used for employees’ own illness. In 2021, that number was 12%, suggesting that companies are giving workers who have to care for sick family members leeway. That stems from human resources departments and also externally from pandemic-era laws that mandate such assignments, Fuerstenberg says.
Similarly, in the 2018 survey, 61% of employers offered a PTO plan, rather than separately designated sick time and vacation time. In 2021, that number has increased to 68%, but the range varies by industry, as the chart below shows.
“It’s still in that flexibility trend,” says Fuerstenberg. “You can work things out between you and your manager, even among the hourly non-exempt population, instead of Big Brother overseeing them.”
Whether paid sick leave gains momentum significantly will also depend on the demands of the workforce. The pandemic prompted employees to reassess their time with family, their physical health, and their mental well-being. Even if their local laws don’t require paid sick leave, many workers will look for the best work options for their lifestyle and may favor employers that offer generous benefits.
Alex Alonso, chief knowledge officer for the Society for Human Resource Management, believes that the expectations of workers, perhaps even more than labor laws, will determine the direction of paid leave in the future. Even before the pandemic, he says, paid leave laws expanded within a given industry when employers had to compete with each other for talent. The pandemic has only increased that pressure.
“Employees have been made aware that their employer is the administrator of the wellness programs in [their] life,” says Alonso. “The leave and paid leave is part of welfare. And today, talent has the upper hand.”
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