Millions of North Carolina workers, especially women and workers of color, still lack federally guaranteed paid sick days protections as COVID-19 spreads, despite recent federal action to slow the spread of the pandemic.
As a result, significant swaths of the North Carolina workforce are forced to choose to between earning their paycheck and keeping themselves, their families, and their coworkers healthy, even as COVID continues to spread, according to a new report from the NC Justice Center.
Even more troubling, the lack of guaranteed paid sick days coverage for so many North Carolina workers could prove disastrous if policymakers move to open the economy too quickly, as it will directly encourage sick workers to return to work and possibly spread the contagion.
Given the intensely infectious nature of the new coronavirus, paid sick days play an essential role in halting the spread of the disease by allowing workers to take time away from work without losing wages. Paid sick leave has long been recognized as a key tool that helps reduce the spread of contagious illnesses in the workplace — sparing coworkers and customers alike—and now more than ever working people need this tool to keep themselves safe on the job.
Yet recent federal action on this has fallen significantly short of what the moment requires, according to the report:
The paid sick days provisions included in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and recent U.S. Department of Labor rules implementing the law have left between 58% and 83% of the state’s workforce—as many as 3 million North Carolina workers—without access to guaranteed paid sick days protections in the federal legislation. Here’s why:
- The large employer exclusion leaves out 1.9 million North Carolina workers. The Trump Administration demanded (and received) a blanket exemption for every business with more than 500 employees. While some employees working for the nation’s biggest businesses have some kind of paid sick leave, most do not — especially frontline workers in warehousing, grocery stores, food production. In fact, only 42% of North Carolina workers had paid sick days before the crisis started, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
- The healthcare/first responder exemption leaves out an additional 191,430 North Carolina workers. Families First exempts all private healthcare workers and first responders, under the theory that these workers are too essential to allow to take time off, even if sick with the very virus they’re trying to fight in their patients. Although many doctors and nurses already have paid time off, other lower-paid frontline healthcare workers like med techs, medical assistants, and orderlies do not.
- The small business hardship waiver could leave out up to a maximum of 884,383 North Carolina workers, if every small business in the state uses the waiver. Families First allows small businesses of fewer than 50 employees to apply to the USDOL for a hardship waiver exempting them from the paid sick days provisions. While some small businesses will participate in the the program, many will not and instead seek a waiver.
- USDOL guidelines exempt millions more—as many as 3 million workers. Unfortunately, the USDOL took these loopholes and made them even bigger. In new rules issued on April 1 as part of implementing the emergency paid sick days program, USDOL granted additional exceptions significantly beyond those granted to employers in the Families First Act, including even more healthcare workers and all workers deemed essential in state executive orders.
- Women and workers of color disproportionately lack paid sick days as they bear brunt of COVID-19 deaths. Workers of color, especially Black workers, are the most affected because they are overly concentrated in frontline occupations that have been deemed “essential” in combating the epidemic and are thus excluded from federal paid sick days protections. Many of those occupations lacked paid sick days prior to the crisis as well, leaving whole swaths of the workforce — especially women and workers of color — uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19, absent any federal protections.
From this, it’s clear that Congress left so many loopholes that at least half the workforce—and potentially millions more workers—won’t have guaranteed access to paid sick days, which defeats the entire purpose of creating the program in the middle of a pandemic. Absent additional federal response, the North Carolina General Assembly needs to step up and close these loopholes. No-one should have to choose between earning their paycheck and getting themselves, co-workers or customers sick with COVID-19.