Many U.S. workers unaware of COVID-19 sick leave protections

ITHACA, N.Y. — Researchers from Cornell University find many workers are unaware of their available COVID-19 sick leave. Despite federal mandates aimed at preventing these very occurrences, study authors report less than half of workers are aware of their available time off. Moreover, over the course of the pandemic, instances of sick employees being forced to attend work have tripled.

Notably, researchers find both part-time and foreign-born employees are most likely to be unaware of their available sick leave.

“When the government does not ensure that people have access to paid sick leave, people go to work sick,” says study co-author Nicolas Ziebarth, associate professor in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, in a university release.

“And when you have a virus going on – it could be the flu or coronavirus, it doesn’t really matter – then the sick people at work infect coworkers who go on to infect other people,” he continues. “If they send a kid sick to school, because they can’t afford to stay home with them, the sick kid infects other kids who likely infect their families. The point is that you have more virus infections in the population, which is bad for population health.”

Who’s most at risk of not using their paid sick leave?

Long before the pandemic, the United States already held a dubious distinction as one of the only developed nations that doesn’t offer universal paid sick leave. Fast forward to March 2020, and the U.S. implemented the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), intended to ensure federally funded emergency paid sick leave for all workers who contract COVID-19.

Study authors analyzed data collected for a nationally representative Cornell National Social Survey put together between October and December of 2020. That process led to the discovery that roughly eight million workers took advantage of FFCRA sick leave within the first six to eight months of the policy’s start.

Additionally, awareness regarding FFCRA sick leave appears to be particularly low among service industry and hospitality workers. This is ironic considering such workers make up a large portion of the “essential employees” that never stopped reporting for work during the pandemic.

Interestingly, the study finds female employees have a 69-percent higher risk of unmet sick leave needs. Consequently, researchers say improving paid sick leave awareness may help reduce gender inequity.

“One reason the unmet needs for women is so much higher is that they are overrepresented in the hospitality and service industries,” Prof. Ziebarth concludes. “Another is that women tend to have a higher burden of work. They are still more likely to be the primary caregiver for children and have to balance paid work, chores, and childcare.”

Earlier, Prof. Ziebarth co-authored a study concluding that the FFCRA policy prevented 15,000 new infections per day between March and April 2020.

The study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

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