“Stay home when sick.”
This recommendation from our government to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is out of reach for thousands of workers. For women across Connecticut, hearing this guidance is met with the anxiety of knowing they don’t have access to a single day of paid sick time or medical leave.
Less than three-quarters (73%) of private sector workers in the United States have the ability to earn paid sick time at work and only 30% of the lowest paid workers earn sick days. Women, primarily women of color, are the majority of the low-wage workforce (69%) and caregiving sector. Plus, women shoulder the majority of caregiving responsibility for ill or dependent family members.
In 2011, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to require certain private employers to provide accrued paid sick leave to their employees. Eligible workers use paid sick days to recover from short-term illnesses, care for a sick child, access preventive care, or seek assistance related to family violence or sexual assault.
The landmark law created a shift in state policies across the nation. But nine years later and in the midst of a public health emergency in our state, Connecticut needs to act immediately to revisit this law.
Unlike most states across the nation that followed our lead, Connecticut’s law applies solely to service workers who work for an employer of 50 or more. This leaves employees at smaller businesses or within the gig economy with no option: go to work sick, or stay home and lose a paycheck. Women across our state cannot afford to lose a paycheck with nearly 48% of female-headed households in Connecticut under the age of 65 earning below the ALICE threshold, the minimum income level necessary for survival.
Comprehensive paid sick leave laws reduce the spread of illness in workplaces, schools, daycares, and community centers. Access to paid sick leave also supports workers to seek preventive care and reduces the spread of germs. When workers can take the time they need without the fear of being fired or losing a paycheck, the overall public health of our state — and our nation — benefits. Now, more than ever, with our state declaring a public health emergency, all Connecticut workers need access to paid sick leave.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, several large companies including Walmart, McDonalds, and Uber adjusted their paid sick days policies. But many of these actions only protect workers who are quarantined — not those who need to take time to see a doctor and get tested, or to recover. Reliance on individual businesses to change their own policies also reinforces the “boss lottery,” or the idea that someone must work for a generous employer in order to stay healthy.
Although Connecticut took action last year to implement a paid family medical leave (PFML) law, workers won’t begin to receive benefits until 2022 and the program is available for longer term or chronic illnesses, to recover from surgery, or to welcome a child. School and daycare closures and encouragement of remote work are privileges not all workers, especially women, have access to. Beyond “social distancing”, the most effective response is simple: guaranteed, job protected, paid sick time.
The federal government, following the leadership of Congresswoman DeLauro, must approve the Paid Sick Days for Public Health Emergencies and Personal Family Care Act, for all workers to access up to fourteen days of paid sick leave for use during the COVID-19 outbreak and any other future public health emergency. The current bill also provides up to seven days of paid sick and safe days annually outside of a public health emergency.
But, here in Connecticut we can’t wait for federal action. Through executive order, Colorado is requiring employers to provide paid sick time to hundreds of thousands of service workers, including leisure and hospitality, food services, community living facilities, child care, and home health workers, across the state. The emergency rule provides four paid sick days for workers with flu-like symptoms who are being tested for COVID-19 and will be in place for up to 120 days.
We urge the Lamont administration and state lawmakers to enact similar solutions that center the needs of our state’s most marginalized — women and their families — who do not have the luxury to follow our government’s guidance and simply “stay home when sick.”
Kate Farrar is Executive Director of the nonprofit Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund (CWEALF)