Calls for restoring a national policy on Covid-19 paid sick leave are growing as omicron variant cases surge and major U.S. employers, including
Supporters of a federal paid leave mandate say the latest wave of the pandemic highlights the need for Congress to guarantee all workers have access to paid sick time during the contagion—regardless of whether the omicron wave proves to be short-lived or has more staying power than the previous delta variant.
But business groups instead are ready to scale back the coronavirus-related leave that many major employers have offered since 2020, and there’s no indication of significant support in Congress for passing further widespread Covid-19 relief legislation.
“We have to get this under control and use every tool that we have,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow focused on paid leave policy at the New America think tank. Those tools include masks, testing, and vaccines, she said, adding “a public investment in a common-sense measure like paid sick time is equally important.”
Major employers—including the nation’s largest, Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart—have said they would cut back the number of paid days off their employees can take for Covid-19 quarantine or isolation. The moves were inspired partly by new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reduces to five days in many cases the length of quarantine recommended after exposure to the virus or a positive test.
Seattle-based Amazon, for example, cited the CDC guidance when switching to offering 40 hours of paid leave for employees who need to isolate or quarantine, versus its previous Covid-19 policy of 80 hours, according to a copy of a company memo that spokesman Richard Rocha shared.
The company is working routinely with public health authorities to update its employee safety efforts and has hosted more than 1,800 free vaccination clinics to encourage its employees to get immunized, he said.
In several cases, employers are cutting the paid time off available only for employees who test positive but are asymptomatic, since the CDC says those people only need a five-day quarantine instead of the previous 10-day recommendation, said Ani Huang, president and CEO of the Center On Executive Compensation and senior vice president of the HR Policy Association.
“Companies are not saying you come back in five days whether you’re sick or not,” she said. For employees at the nation’s largest corporations—which make up her association’s membership—paid sick leave or other paid leave is often available, and in some instances Covid-specific leave beyond five days for those who have symptoms.
Congress initially required many employers to provide pandemic-related paid leave in its March 2020 relief legislation, but since then has rejected calls to restore the mandate. A divided Congress in December 2020 let the measure expire and opted instead to extend tax credits only for employers that voluntarily provide the leave. Even after Democrats gained control of half the Senate and the White House, the relief legislation they passed in March 2021 only renewed the tax credits with no mandate. Congress then let the tax credits expire in September 2021 without a serious effort to renew those.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said additional coronavirus relief could be included in a fiscal year 2022 funding package being negotiated. Whether that would include additional appropriations for pandemic-related paid leave is unclear, and an agreement on a funding deal has failed to coalesce as a Feb. 18 deadline looms.
Ohio Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown pointed to the American Rescue Plan Act, passed in early 2021, as one way Congress delivered pandemic relief to workers, and said he hopes to keep paid leave in the Build Back Better Act.
“Nearly two years into this pandemic, employers should be implementing changes to give workers the flexibility, paid time, and support they need to keep themselves, their families, and their communities safe,” he said in an email. But President Joe Biden has struggled to assemble the majority needed for Senate passage of the tax and social spending plan.
Business groups have complained for nearly a year of the difficulty in finding enough workers amid what some have called “The Great Resignation,” even as the economy has rebounded from the widespread shutdowns of 2020—a factor that plays into their eagerness to reduce the amount of virus-related leave they grant.
The omicron variant also is thought to have a shorter incubation period and cause milder disease than previous variants among people who are fully vaccinated, executives and a medical adviser for
“With the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the 10-day isolation for those who are fully vaccinated may significantly impact our workforce and operations. Similar to healthcare, police, fire, and public transportation workforces, the Omicron surge may exacerbate shortages and create significant disruptions,” the Delta team wrote.
As for the possibility of new action in Congress to require or encourage paid Covid leave, Huang said she hasn’t heard from large employers about their position on the idea.
“I think maybe that’s because it hasn’t taken hold or taken shape in terms of what that might look like,” she said.
‘A Major Gap’
But the shortened quarantine period ignores the fact the virus often spreads within families, meaning a parent might need one week off for themselves and the following week to tend to a child who’s tested positive, said Jared Make, vice president at the advocacy group A Better Balance.
Beyond that, millions of workers have no paid sick time at work—pandemic or not.
“This country has a major gap in our response because of the absence of a right to paid sick leave,” Make said.
Like the federal paid leave mandate, many state and local laws requiring pandemic-specific paid sick time have expired, with a few exceptions such as Colorado and Massachusetts where Covid-19 sick leave requirements remain.
The resurgence of the virus over the last month has also renewed interest among state and local lawmakers, said Make, who added he’s hearing from legislators who want information on crafting their own Covid-19 sick leave proposals.
Most notably, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has called for restoring his state’s Covid-19 sick leave requirement as part of his annual budget plan. The previous statewide emergency sick leave law expired in September.
As one option, state and local governments have authority to use the $350 billion in direct cash aid received through the federal American Rescue Plan to create or support paid sick, medical, or family leave programs, according to a final Treasury Department rule issued Jan. 6 that governs use of the funds.