Washington, D.C.—In April, when many Americans were working from home to stay safe from the coronavirus, a farmworker in California—an occupation deemed “essential” by the federal government—was worried about getting sick in the fields.
“I am afraid of potentially getting sick, then not being able to work, and then not being able to pay for my rent, food and medical bills,” the farmworker said. “We do not have any benefits on the job.”
The farmworker’s story is one of more than 50 collected by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), MomsRising, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), United Farm Workers (UFW) and UFW Foundation that helped inform a new report released today by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee (JEC).
The report draws together evidence and expert opinion on the health and economic costs of gaps in paid sick leave during the current coronavirus crisis. Among other findings, it concludes that:
- The United States is the only high-income country without universal paid sick leave. As a result, before the pandemic, approximately one-quarter of American workers did not have paid sick leave at all.
- While almost all employees of large U.S. corporations have paid sick leave, less than two-thirds at companies with fewer than 50 employees have access to it.
- More than 90 percent of the highest-wage earners have paid sick leave, while only 30 percent of the lowest-wage earners do.
- Only 58 percent of service sector workers and only 45 percent of workers in the hotel and foodservice industries have access to paid sick leave.
- Workers who do not have access to paid sick leave are three times more likely to go to work sick, delay seeking medical attention or forgo medical care altogether.
From Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA), vice chair of the JEC:
“Even before the pandemic, 36 million American workers did not have paid sick leave and were forced to choose between a paycheck and protecting their health. This perverse incentive puts many others at risk. One of the many things that this pandemic has made clear is that paid sick leave should be a right for all workers not a benefit left to the discretion of employers. We all have an overwhelming interest in making paid sick leave universal, so Americans do not have to risk exposing their co-workers and consumers to the coronavirus and other illnesses out of fear of getting fired or forgoing pay. It would be a shame if the paid sick leave provisions included in the House-passed HEROES Act do not make it into the final version of the next relief package because, as the report and stories confirm, they are sorely needed.”
From Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT):
“This report illustrates what we are witnessing in real time: gaps in our nation’s paid sick leave are not only making it more difficult to contain the coronavirus, but also, they are weakening the economic recovery. Families are forced to choose between their health, and that of their families, coworkers, and communities, and their income and job security. There has never been a more urgent need to expand paid sick days and paid leave to the workers of this country. Any final coronavirus relief package passed by Congress must close these gaps. I will continue fighting for a permanent solution to this problem that existed long before this pandemic.”
From AFSCME President Lee Saunders:
“This public health crisis makes plainer than ever that universal paid sick leave is a moral and economic imperative. It's shocking and unforgivable that it isn't already guaranteed for all working people in the United States, as it is in every other developed nation. It's time for us to finally align public policy with the realities facing working families in the 21st century. The next coronavirus relief bill must include, in addition to at least $1 trillion in state and local aid, paid leave for all—with no carve-outs, opt-outs, or workarounds for employers."
From Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director and CEO of MomsRising, the online and on-the-ground organization of more than one million mothers and their families:
“Outdated policies and pervasive discrimination have long penalized women and moms in the workforce, with Black and Latinx women and moms suffering the most due to appalling structural racism that has gone unchecked. The fact that millions of workers cannot earn paid sick days and access paid family and medical leave has long harmed families, businesses and our economy, and is a significant part of the reason we were so ill-prepared for COVID-19. We applaud the Joint Economic Committee for releasing this report today. In the next coronavirus relief bill, moms want Congress to ensure all workers can earn paid sick days and access paid leave, along with quality, affordable child care, and adequate unemployment benefits. We need these policies during the health and economic crises that COVID-19 is causing and we will need them after these crises end.”
From Joyce Barnes, a home care worker for three decades and a member of SEIU Virginia 512 who lives in Sandston, Va.:
“Home care workers, most of us Black and brown women, have long been forgotten, and not just during this pandemic. Poverty wages and lack of basic benefits have made it hard to get by, let alone prepare us if we get sick. Not having sick days means we must go to work no matter how sick we get. It’s an awful choice: go to work when we're sick or get evicted because we can’t make rent.”
From UFW President Teresa Romero:
“The nation’s food security depends on farmworkers. To mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in agricultural communities and further the health, safety and economic security of the people that feed us, the essential women and men who are required to work in agriculture need and deserve sick pay."
From UFW Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres:
“Farm workers are highly skilled workers keeping America fed. More than 2.5 million of farm workers—half undocumented—are deemed essential during the pandemic, but most do not have essential compensation and protections, including paid sick leave, hazard pay and personal protective equipment. Most farm workers and their families are excluded from federal relief efforts due to the lack of legal status either of the farm worker or their spouse. In order to address these systemic inequities, the UFW Foundation has distributed more than 170,000 meals and more than 14,000 emergency food boxes to rural California families, and is distributing 900,000 masks and $11.6 million in cash assistance to farm workers in California, Washington and Oregon. Additionally, as one of 12 community-based nonprofit organizations selected by California to administer its Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants financial assistance program, the UFW Foundation assisted 10,867 immigrants. America cannot deem farm workers essential without providing the pay, benefits and safeguards they deserve to sustain their families and protect themselves, their loved ones, colleagues and communities from the spread of COVID-19. The HEROES Act in the House and Sen. Stabenow's Food Supply Protection Act combined with Sen. Merkley's FARM Laborers Protection Act, would go a long way in addressing the fundamental and life-saving needs of the people that feed us.”
On May 15, 2020, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, which, if passed by the Senate and signed into law, would extend emergency paid sick leave to millions of additional workers by closing carve-outs that hurt new employees, some federal employees singled out by the Office of Management and Budget, health care workers and emergency responders (who were not included in original emergency provisions) and employees at large and small companies (of greater than 500 employees and less than 50 employees). The legislation would also create a fund to support premium pay for essential workers. Finally the legislation would address widely publicized concerns about Department of Labor employer rules regarding who is and is not eligible for emergency paid sick leave and extend eligibility for non-emergency FMLA.
Congressman Beyer has been a longtime supporter of stronger paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave policies. He is a co-sponsor of the PAID Leave Act which would permanently ensure that workers can accrue 7 paid sick days, as well as provide 14 additional days when there is a public health emergency and 12 weeks of emergency paid family and medical leave—both of which would be fully reimbursed by the federal government. He also was a lead sponsor of the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, which was signed into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act at the end of 2019, guaranteeing federal employees up to 12 weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child.
Congresswoman DeLauro has long pressed for paid sick days and paid family and medical leave, first introducing the Healthy Families Act in 2004 and reintroducing every Congress since and introducing the FAMILY Act in 2013 and in every Congress since. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, DeLauro has pushed for paid leave policies and helped to ensure that the Families First Coronavirus Response Act included crucial first steps in establishing a national paid leave policy. She has also introduced the PAID Leave Act, a comprehensive emergency paid sick days and paid family and medical leave bill that is fully funded by the federal government during this emergency, and continues to push for it to be a part of Congress’ continuing coronavirus response efforts.
About the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee
The U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee is Congress’s bicameral economic think tank. It was created when Congress passed the Employment Act of 1946. Under this Act, Congress established two advisory panels: the President's Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) and the JEC. Their primary tasks are to review economic conditions and to recommend improvements in economic policy.
Chairmanship of the JEC alternates between the Senate and House every Congress. Currently, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) is the chair and Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA) is vice chair.