Coronavirus Paid Sick Leave Bill 'Does Not Go Far Enough' and Leaves Many Workers Unprotected, Economists Warn

A bill offering paid sick leave to some Americans amid the COVID-19 pandemic doesn't go far enough and leaves many workers unprotected, economists have warned.

Economists told Newsweek that the Families First Coronavirus Response Act signed into law on Wednesday night covered very few workers who might need to take time off and isolate themselves if they catch the novel coronavirus.

One economist also said that everything in the bill needed to be "scaled up further" to ensure Americans had money to pay rent and put food on the table.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act was first passed by the House on Saturday morning, and was later changed on Monday night before being passed onto the Senate. On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled upper chamber approved the bill with a 90-8 vote, sending it to the White House for President Donald Trump's signature.

The commander-in-chief signed the bill into law, providing sick leave to some Americans as well as free COVID-19 testing and increases to food stamps, Medicaid, nutrition assistance for children and other benefits.

Woman with Face Mask Stock Exchange
A woman with a facial mask passes the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on February 3, 2020 at Wall Street in New York City. Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

Although the bill does offer paid sick leave and extended paid family leave to some Americans, many will not be covered by its provisions, as employers with more than 500 workers are exempt from the paid leave provision.

Small businesses with less than 50 employees will also be able to ask the labor department to let them dodge paying sick and family leave for their workers amid the pandemic.

Paid family leave of up to 12 weeks, originally on offer to all workers who received paid sick leave in the bill, was only made available to those caring for children due to schools being shuttered in the new draft created on Monday night.

Two weeks of paid sick leave capped at $511 per day will be provided to some workers at companies with less than 500 employees under the bill.

"It does not go far enough because many workers are still not protected if they are in businesses over 500, or under 50 employees," Ioana Marinescu, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, told Newsweek by email.

Betsey Stevenson, a University of Michigan professor of public policy and economics, also said the bill's paid sick leave provisions "covered very few workers" and did "little to address" the issue.

"All workers should have been covered, with government grants to businesses to help them absorb the cost," she added.

"The challenge right now is that we cannot ask businesses to absorb the cost of paid leave at a time when their revenue is plummeting and many of their workers will need paid leave at once."

Asked for her views on the provision that allows small businesses with less than 50 employees to be exempt from paying sick and family leave, Marinescu said: "I understand why the provision is there because businesses are asked to front the cost (and be later reimbursed by tax breaks). Therefore, some small businesses may not be able to pay right now especially considering that many had to close.

"However, exempting these businesses is not the right solution. Instead, the federal government should find a way to pay for the sick leave directly or inject cash into these businesses so they can pay."

She added that the loophole for small firms would likely have "little impact" on overall employment levels, but could threaten businesses if a lack of sick pay causes the virus to continue spreading.

"Not paying sick leave may allow some businesses to stay afloat, instead of laying off everybody and therefore lowering employment," she said. "But on the other hand this would spread the epidemic more, further compromising the economy and threatening the same businesses."

Marinescu also suggested that generous loans should be provided to businesses so they can stay afloat, but come with the condition that employees are kept on their books.

Professor Stevenson said everything in the "Families First" package needed to be "scaled up further," adding: "But the bigger factor is what's not in the bill—people need cash now to pay the rent, pay their mortgage, and put food on the table. The government needs to send out checks and figure out how to help people skip loan payments with no penalty."

Other economists agreed that the bill needed to go further with its sick leave measures.

Speaking to Newsweek for a separate story on Wednesday, Economic Policy Institute (EPI) senior economists Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz said it has "glaring exclusions," pointing to the paid leave exemption for large firms with more than 500 employees.

The pair also estimated that anywhere between 6.8 million and more than 19 million workers could be denied sick pay under the loopholes.

The EPI Director Josh Bivens also said the bill was "distressingly watered-down" following changes made to the legislation on Monday night.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before; during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • If you feel unwell (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and call local health authorities in advance.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing. Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.