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Lack of Paid Sick Leave Makes It Difficult for Many Workers to Comply with CDC Advice to Stay Home

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As the number of coronavirus cases in the United States passes 1,300 cases with 38 deaths, more than 30 million workers lack access to paid sick leave. President Trump addressed the nation Wednesday night, saying he will expand sick leave as part of emergency response to the virus. But the same day, Republican senators blocked an attempt by Senate Democrats to quickly pass legislation requiring employers to grant paid sick leave. Meanwhile, Democrats in the House of Representatives will debate a package of bills Thursday to give workers 14 days of paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family and medical leave. Labor Department data says that one in four workers have no access to paid sick leave, including two-thirds of lowest earners. The U.S. is one of the only wealthy countries that does not require employers to offer its workers paid sick leave. We speak with Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute; Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union; and economist Robert Pollin, co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: As the number of coronavirus cases in the United States passes 1,300 cases with 38 deaths, more than 30 million workers lack access to paid sick leave. President Trump addressed the nation Wednesday night, saying he will expand sick leave as part of the emergency response to the virus.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If you are sick or not feeling well, stay home. To ensure that working Americans impacted by the virus can stay home without fear of financial hardship, I will soon be taking emergency action, which is unprecedented, to provide financial relief. This will be targeted for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus. I will be asking Congress to take legislative action to extend this relief.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was President Trump speaking last night. But the same day, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee blocked an attempt by Senate Democrats to quickly pass legislation requiring employers to grant paid sick leave.

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: The idea of paid sick leave is a good idea, but if Washington, D.C., thinks it’s a good idea, Washington, D.C., should pay for it. When I was governor of Tennessee, nothing used to make me more unhappy than some well-meaning individual in the United States Senate or House coming up with a big idea, passing it, taking credit for it and sending me the bill. And so, employees are struggling. So are employers struggling.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Democrats in the House of Representatives prepare to debate a package of bills today to give workers 14 days paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family and medical leave. The bill also includes funding for low-income mothers and pregnant people who may be laid off due to coronavirus, $400 billion for local food banks and free coronavirus testing for all those who need it, including those without insurance. Labor Department data says one in four workers have no access to paid sick leave, including two-thirds of the lowest-income earners. The U.S. is one of the only wealthy countries in the world that doesn’t require employers to offer its workers paid sick leave.

For more, we’re joined by two new guests. In Washington, D.C., Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. Her most recent article is titled “Amid COVID-19 Outbreak, the Workers Who Need Paid Sick Days the Most Have the Least.” Here in New York, Donna Lieberman is with us, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Still with us, Robert Pollin, distinguished university professor of economics, co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Elise Gould, let’s first go to you. Lay out for us what is being debated right now, what needs to happen in this country, why paid sick leave is not only for people who individually have it or could get it, but for the whole community.

ELISE GOULD: It’s absolutely of utmost importance. The CDC recommends that people stay home. They stay home if they might be infected. They stay home if they’re quarantined. They stay home to stay out of harm’s way. And unfortunately, as you’ve said already, about a quarter of U.S. workers don’t have paid sick days, don’t have the ability to stay home when they’re sick or they need to stay home, if they’re quarantined, or they need to take care of another family member. So that is an important gap we need to absolutely fill with policy. And luckily, policymakers can do something about it.

What makes this even worse is that low-wage workers are far less likely to have paid days, and they’re far less likely to be able to work from home. And when you think about the service sector, the sector that’s going to get particularly hit by this, not only because they’re out in the public, but also because they’re going to have fewer customers, you’re going to see some layoffs. You’re going to see people’s hours cut. So it’s really important that we have those protections for those workers in particular.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Donna Lieberman, you’re the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Could you explain who at the moment does have sick leave, paid sick leave, and who doesn’t?

DONNA LIEBERMAN: Well, it’s really a mix. The people who in New York lack paid sick leave are overwhelmingly low-paid workers and workers in the gig economy. And that includes domestic workers. It includes restaurant workers and —

AMY GOODMAN: Home healthcare workers?

DONNA LIEBERMAN: Home healthcare workers and people who aren’t in unions. And so — and here in New York, we have been campaigning for quite a while now to get mandatory paid sick leave. And there are two issues. One is being able to stay out of work and get your job back, and the other is getting paid. And there’s legislation pending in New York to mandate that. And that’s for the long term.

You know, we also have to deal with the immediate problem that we’re presented with, which is the coronavirus. And it’s imperative that the state pass legislation that would guarantee that people will not lose their jobs or their income if they adhere to the public health best practices, which is to stay in quarantine under a whole range of circumstances and work from home.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, some in the corporate sector are changing their policies in response to the pandemic, including Walmart, which launched an emergency leave policy for its 1.4 million hourly U.S. workers, after a Kentucky employee tested positive. The nation’s largest private employer said Tuesday workers who are diagnosed or forced to quarantine will receive two weeks’ pay, with additional compensation provided for up to 26 weeks for both full-time and part-time hourly workers. Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden, said it will now offer its hourly workers 40 hours of paid sick leave annually. Ride-hailing app Uber said it would provide drivers diagnosed with coronavirus with 14 days paid sick leave, although it didn’t specify what that would amount to. Lyft also said it would compensate sick drivers, but didn’t specify how. Robert Pollin, if you can address all of these? And also, if they test positive for the coronavirus, it is extremely difficult for people in this country to even get a test.

ROBERT POLLIN: Right. So, this, again, really portrays the failure of our healthcare system to deal with anything, anything like this at all. Now, what we therefore need to focus on is everybody recognizing that they can have the paid sick leave that they need, such that they are not going to face any kind of financial crisis on top of any kind of healthcare crisis. And so, as Elise said, what we know is that people, let’s say, in the lowest 10% in terms of their pay scale, 90% of them have no paid sick leave. So this has to be recognized across the board, that everyone is going to get paid sick leave.

Now, Lamar Alexander said, “Oh, this is all well and good, but we don’t know how to pay for it.” It’s actually very easy to pay for it. We just extend Medicaid benefits to everybody that needs this. We expand Medicare to cover everything to do with the coronavirus. And the federal government, yes, will pay for it. I’m not opposed per se to employers getting a payroll tax cut, if that payroll tax cut is then used to help cover the cost of covering paid sick leave. At the same time, the most important thing for people is to be able to get money in their pockets for that assurance and to recognize they have paid sick leave and full coverage for any kind of care that they need with the coronavirus.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Pollin, as you also mentioned, all of this is taking place in the context of a broader economic crisis in the United States, and, of course, the two are playing off one another. It’s the the oil crisis, as well as the coronavirus, which has created this situation. The U.S. is on the cusp of an economic recession. Could you talk about what the impact of that will be on the possible government responses to the coronavirus as we see more infections?

ROBERT POLLIN: Well, you know, pumping money into the economy is basically what we need right now. Even if it wasn’t a coronavirus crisis, it is a significant recession that we’re facing. It would have happened anyway. The financial markets have been overvalued for years. They were vulnerable to any kind of shock, and so we’re experiencing that now. So, one of the main things that happens that exacerbates a financial crisis is that state and local governments run out of money. They run out of money because people don’t have as much. They’re not spending on sales taxes. And so, that would happen anyway.

Now, that’s going to get much worse than it would otherwise, precisely because the state governments are going to pay for Medicare expenses. So the federal government has to move money from the federal government, contrary to Lamar Alexander. They have to move money into covering Medicaid for the states, and so that the states don’t deepen the crisis with the fact that they don’t have money. On top of that, then spending by the federal government. As I said, in 2008, the Bush administration sent out checks, just sent out checks. If you’re just going to wait for payroll tax cuts, these are going to dribble out slowly over time.

What we need is a positive shock to the economy to counteract the negative shock of the coronavirus. The positive shock is at least people will know that they’re getting these checks, that they will be disproportionately beneficial for low-income people who depend on service sector jobs, as Elise said — restaurant workers, hotel workers, gig economy workers. They need to feel that they are going to be financially stable and that they will not go bankrupt due to having to get a coronavirus test —


ROBERT POLLIN: — or, if they’re tested positive, getting treatment.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Elise Gould. We only have a minute, but what would a comprehensive worker protection plan look like right now? What do you see — you’re in Washington — is being debated in the House? What happens, for example, with undocumented immigrants? When you talk about the gig economy, how are people going to be protected at this moment?

ELISE GOULD: That’s a great question. And I think Robert is absolutely right. We need to take all the measures to make sure that people have the paid sick days, but that’s not enough. We need to make sure people have money in their pockets. This recession is going to affect service sector workers, lower-paid workers. We need to get money in their pockets now, and we need to make sure that they can stay home, they have all the economic incentives to stay home, which means that they get paid to stay home. If that means expanding the unemployment insurance program, I think that’s great. I agree that payroll tax is sort of too little, too late. We need to make sure that we get money in the pockets of people right now, and then the money in the states, I think, absolutely, covering those Medicaid matches for the increased demand and making sure states have the money to take care of the people.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, in New York state, Donna Lieberman, you’re part of this coalition for — how does it divide, by the state and the federal government? And when Governor Cuomo says that we want to make sure that insurance companies pay full amount, for example, testing, what if you don’t have insurance?

DONNA LIEBERMAN: New York has a very liberal Medicaid program. But you’ve nailed it. You know, paying for testing, if and when they actually become available — and they’re not available thanks to the bumbling of the federal government — is essential. And testing is meaningful in terms of public health, but it is not meaningful without treatment for people who are sick. So I think that New York’s Medicaid program is pretty good, and I think the governor has said that testing will be free, but it has to be available, broadly available, and that requires some push on the federal government.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you all. We’re going to continue to be on this, Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Elise Gould of the Economic Policy Institute, and Robert Pollin, an economist at UMass Amherst, which has just closed.

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