Paid Sick Leave Is a Civil Rights Issue, Too

Allison Stevens

Feb. 5, 2021

All workers need the ability to earn paid sick days so they can take leave from their jobs to care for themselves or their loved ones when they are sick or injured. The coronavirus pandemic has made the need for this basic right — guaranteed to workers in other wealthy nations but not here in the United States — clearer than ever.

Paid sick leave is more than a workers’ rights issue. It’s also a civil rights issue.

Lawyers, engineers, and others in the higher-paying “professional” class are far more likely than frontline, lower-income workers to have access to paid sick leave, the American Civil Liberties Union recently noted. They’re also more likely to be able to work from home during the pandemic, putting them at far less risk of contracting COVID-19.

And they’re more likely to be white.

Due to long-standing structural inequities and intentional discrimination, lower-income workers are more likely to be Black or Brown — and more likely to work on the front lines of the pandemic. Yet only half of those in the lowest-paid quarter of the workforce have access to paid sick leave. About one in two Latino workers and one in three Black workers have no access to paid leave, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

The nation’s public health leaders are calling on workers to stay home if they contract or are exposed to COVID-19. But many workers can’t afford to take leave without pay to recover from the virus, much less quarantine for a full two weeks to prevent its spread.

In short, Black and Brown workers are most in need of paid sick leave — but least likely to have it, as the ACLU notes. It’s no surprise, then, that Black and Brown workers are dying from the disease at higher rates.

Protections for all workers

To quell the pandemic, advance equity, and strengthen our society, we need a federal law to ensure that no worker is forced to choose between their life and their livelihood.

It’s a matter of justice — of economic justice.

Congress took a modest first step toward this goal nearly three decades ago when it passed the nation’s first law to help Americans meet both their work and family obligations. Enacted on this date in 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) enables some workers to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to care for themselves or their family members.

But because the FMLA only requires employers to provide unpaid leave, many of those who are eligible for leave can’t afford to take it. What’s more: It doesn’t apply to the entire workforce; about 40 percent of workers aren’t covered.

The federal government has taken some steps in the right direction since 1993. In 2019, Congress cleared a law providing federal workers with paid leave. And last year, it approved a temporary paid sick and family leave benefit in a coronavirus relief package, but the benefit expired at the end of the year. President Joe Biden has proposed an economic stimulus package that would extend mandatory paid sick leave benefits through September, a proposal now under consideration in Congress.

In the absence of a permanent paid leave law, some states have enacted their own paid sick leave laws, but many don’t go far enough. At CPR, we’re tracking efforts to expand Maryland’s paid leave law so that it applies to food and farm workers (and others).

No worker — in Maryland or any other state — should be forced into making a “devil’s choice” between paying their bills and caring for themselves or their loved ones, especially during a pandemic. All workers, of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, need paid sick leave. It’s time to address this important civil rights issue — and bring our country in line with the rest of the developed world.

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