Pandemic prompts firms to offer paid sick leave—but workers still don't get it

In March 2021, 23% of private-sector employees had access to paid family leave, which can be used to care for a sick family member (Photo: Bloomberg)
In March 2021, 23% of private-sector employees had access to paid family leave, which can be used to care for a sick family member (Photo: Bloomberg)


While many large companies have improved their offerings, low-wage, part-time and hourly workers still lack the benefits

As American confronted the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, a significant workplace divide came into focus: Millions of workers had no paid sick time, and millions more lacked enough paid time off to cover a severe illness.

Now, more than 19 months into the pandemic, many large employers have expanded their paid sick-time and leave offerings to better meet employees’ needs, according to data from Mercer LLC and others. But while many workers who already enjoyed paid leave now have even greater benefits, many more low-wage, part-time and hourly workers, as well as those employed by small businesses, still lack any paid leave and sick time, deepening disparities between these workers.

In March 2021, 23% of private-sector employees had access to paid family leave, which can be used to care for a sick family member, according to the latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s up from 20% in March of 2020. More workers had access to paid sick days—77% of private-sector workers, up slightly from 2020—but there are disparities based on income levels, federal statistics show. Among the highest 10% of U.S. earners in the private sector, 95% of employees had paid sick time off, while 33% of the lowest-earning 10% of employees had access to paid sick time.

“In particular, low-wage workers, folks working multiple part-time jobs, front-line workers, grocery-store and retail workers were often unable to access paid leave," says Ruth Martin, senior vice president and chief workplace justice officer at MomsRising, an organization that advocates for mothers on issues from affordable child care to paid family leave.

Ms. Martin believes that passing paid leave as part of the budget-reconciliation package being debated in Congress would help close the gap between corporate workers, who may have seen access to paid time off proliferate during the pandemic, and hourly workers who may still lack access.

“We’re going to be dealing with Covid for a while, but in the last 18 months, cancer didn’t go away," said Ms. Martin. “Babies don’t go away. There will be a continued need for paid leave beyond a pandemic."

No cushion

For many workers, patchwork time-off provisions result in gaps at crucial times. When Krista Dixon and her husband, 4-year-old daughter and 5-month-old twins tested positive for Covid-19 in January, she was able to take a week of accrued paid time to recover and care for her family. But during the second week of her quarantine, while still experiencing intense shortness of breath, she returned to work remotely.

Ms. Dixon exhausted her banked sick days, which amounted to less than two weeks’ time, after giving birth to her twins the previous July. She took the remainder of her 10-week maternity leave unpaid. She worries that the lingering Covid symptoms that she and her husband both experienced for months were the result of not being able to take the time to recover fully.

“The fear of having to take any unpaid time off or not being able to fully take care of yourself—maybe you need to go to the doctor—that bundle of stress just adds and adds," says Ms. Dixon, who is 28.

Current federal law provides no national paid leave, though nine U.S. states and Washington, D.C., have passed paid family medical-leave laws. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, only about a third of workers live in those states. The spending bill in Congress could mandate up to 12 weeks of paid leave for workers caring for new children or sick family members.

An April 2021 survey conducted by Invest in America and Data for Progress found that 75% of likely U.S. voters across political parties support a national paid family and medical leave policy, including 64% of Republicans and 91% of Democrats.

Making progress

In the face of the current shortfall, employers have taken steps on sick time and paid leave, both to accommodate existing workers and to attract new talent in a turbulent market.

“The pandemic has caused employers to double down on some of the strategies they’ve already been implementing over the past several years, from a paid-time-off perspective," says Rich Fuerstenberg, senior partner at Mercer LLC, a consulting firm.

An increasing number of employers are also moving toward unlimited paid-time-off policies. In addition, Mercer saw an uptick in employers that chose to combine days allocated for vacation or sick time into a single bank: 68% of employers surveyed had done so, up from 61% in 2018 and 49% in 2013. Among other things, the single-bank setup lets employees use sick days for extra vacation if they don’t use them for illness.

Mr. Fuerstenberg adds that paid caregiver leave as well as paid time off for volunteering and bereavement have continued to grow.

Such programs are growing so common that many large employers—across a range of industries—feel compelled to offer them as part of a baseline benefits package.

“These programs started in industries where the war for talent has been going on for years—high tech, investment banking, professional services," says Mr. Fuerstenberg, adding that now, thanks in part to the tight labor market, “we’ve seen those programs expand in industries like retail and hospitality," even for hourly workers.

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