It shouldn’t take a global pandemic to bring to light the impact of the Republican party’s war on the working class, but now that it’s here, the real-life consequences of their coddling of big business is plain to see. Along with the health threat of the coronavirus, workers now must also worry about the economic consequences of staying home sick without pay. That’s why the coronavirus economic relief bill put forward by the House Democrats required paid sick leave.
But ever watchful for corporate interests over those of working men and women, Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration balked and demanded that companies with more than 500 employees be exempted. Together with hardship exemptions for small businesses with fewer than 50 employees, the benefit could exclude up to 80 percent of workers. While many large employers do offer sick leave, not all do, and few offer the 10 days or more needed to address coronavirus recovery times. Other large employers have announced temporary changes to grant sick leave during the current crisis, but still refuse to offer the benefit as a matter of course.
When the economic security of millions of hourly workers is threatened in unprecedented ways, it’s an outrage that Republican leadership is more concerned about corporate profits — already fattened by their 2017 trillion-dollar tax cut — than the welfare of ordinary Americans.
At a time when we need to desperately “flatten the curve” to reduce demands on the U.S. healthcare system that will be stretched beyond its breaking point, low-wage workers will be confronted with the untenable decision of showing up to work sick or staying home without pay.
Meanwhile, hypocrites like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who as a state legislator backed a bill prohibiting Florida cities and counties from requiring paid sick leave, left work to self-quarantine with full pay and no risk of being fired.
Quite simply, Republicans continue to protect billion-dollar companies rather than the workers who generate their profits. As Rep. Rosa DeLaura (D-3rd District), remarked, “It should not —and must not— take a pandemic to get working people the economic relief and stability they need.”
Alone among the developed world, the United States does not have a national paid sick leave law because corporate lobbyists like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce consistently oppose it, abetted by Republican leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who call it part of a Democratic “ideological wish list.”
While 12 states and the District of Colombia require paid sick leave (with Connecticut being the first do so, in 2011), the trend has been the opposite in Republican-controlled state legislatures. Not satisfied to block state-level laws requiring paid sick leave, 22 Republican governors have made it illegal for municipalities in their states to require paid sick leave, pushed by the Koch brothers and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.
Conservative legislators and business lobbyists are blocking paid sick leave at the expense of public health. A recent study found that requiring paid sick leave reduced cases of flu by 11 percent in the first year following implementation of the law. Considering the flu kills from 12,000 to more than 50,000 Americans each year, corporate greed and GOP opposition to paid sick leave is very likely killing Americans. The impact may be magnified, as lower-paid workers who are most likely to lack paid sick leave are more likely to be jobs with above-average contact with the public, such as food service workers, four out of five of whom don’t have paid sick leave.
Opponents of paid sick leave claim it is too costly for employers. The argument lacks merit. There are many companies that do look out for their employees, and their customers, and manage to turn a profit. A just-released working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that paid sick leave, on average, costs just three cents per hour worked.
In 2017 President Trump and the GOP pushed through a tax cut that led to a record $800 billion of stock buybacks by companies newly flush with cash. But mandating a paid sick leave benefit costing less than one-half percent of the $7.25 federal minimum wage? Dead on arrival.
Jonathan Perloe lives in Greenwich.