COVID-19 and Sick Leave Policies

Blog | March 1, 2020


Written by Michelle Ries



As the world is seeing the spread of COVID-19, and the U.S. records three cases of community transmission, federal and state governments are preparing for broader impact of the virus. Experts are issuing advice about the most effective steps that can be taken to prevent its spread. Primary among these steps is advice for individuals to stay home from work or school if they are experiencing symptoms.


Lack of paid sick time can make the decision to stay home more difficult. Workers in service industries, such as retail or food service, are less likely to get paid sick time from their employers. Only 63% of people in service jobs have paid sick leave through their employers, compared to 90% of management/professional workers. These workers also tend to be paid lower wages. The lack of several days' wages for low wage workers can make paying bills harder. According to the Economic Policy Institute, three unpaid days off work can mean losing the equivalent of a month’s budget for groceries. Over seven days unpaid, workers can lose income equivalent to a month’s rent or mortgage payment.


In areas with wide spread of COVID-19, national and local governments are imposing a variety of restrictions for people thought to have the virus, or to have been exposed to it. Prevailing public health recommendations are for anyone with symptoms to stay home from work and avoid public areas, for up to 2-3 weeks. These recommendations (or requirements, depending on the place) are considered one of the most effective ways to contain spread of the virus. Without paid sick leave, this may be a financial hardship for many workers.


Several states currently have laws in place to require employers to provide paid sick leave for their employees. It may be time for employers, municipalities, and the state policy makers to consider the financial and health impacts of our current sick leave policies especially as COVID-19 threatens to spread.