COVID-19 is now officially a pandemic according to the World Health Organization. With over 1,000 cases in the U.S. that we know of, lawmakers are grappling with how to respond.
Testing, quarantines, travel bans, large-gathering cancellations, sheltering in place, and economic relief are all being floated to address testing and treatment of novel coronavirus and ensuing economic hardship. States, counties, and cities should consider what’s best for their citizens given the on-the-ground realities they face and act accordingly to protect their people.
However, this is not the time to use a health crisis to push for an ill-advised federal policy. Democrats in Congress are looking to do just that by proposing a sweeping nationwide federal paid sick leave mandate.
We are all sympathetic to our fellow Americans who do not have paid time off to take care of themselves or their family members if they are tested positive for coronavirus. It can happen anywhere and to anyone. Not only is their health and recovery important, but it’s critical that they are not out and about infecting others.
Targeted aid to those individuals may make sense. Using this crisis to push for a nationwide mandate that you’ve been unable to get passed otherwise does not.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced legislation recently that “requires all employers to allow workers to accrue seven days of paid sick leave and to provide an additional 14 days available immediately in the event of any public health emergency, including the current coronavirus crisis.”
They say it is not only “imperative we turn to other necessary steps to keep people safe” but that the lack of a federal sick-leave mandate could “make coronavirus harder to contain.”
DeLauro contends that without a paid sick leave mandate coronavirus will spread even more. That’s a bold claim to make, especially without anything to back it up.
We do have evidence of how well state-level paid sick leave mandates have contained COVID-19.
A Wall Street Journal op-ed today explains that California and Washington both have mandates, yet, it has not stopped the spread of COVID-19. A nursing home in Washington is reportedly the epicenter of the virus and California has the third-highest concentration of cases:
Why didn’t paid-leave regimes in California and Washington prevent the spread of the disease, as Ms. Murray imagines? According to Johns Hopkins researchers, it takes five days on average for coronavirus symptoms to present. That means paid sick leave is of limited use. No employee would come to work or a public gathering knowing he had the coronavirus, and no employer would want him to. But he might show up contagious before he has ever showed symptoms.
Ms. Murray’s plan is also uniquely ill-suited to the tenuous economic environment. Her proposal immediately grants 14 days of sick leave in the event of a “public health emergency,” including the current one. But employers are already cutting back in response to declining revenue. Local 360, a Seattle restaurant, announced this week it would close immediately “due to the impacts of the COVID-19 situation.” Others have done the same. Requiring struggling businesses to pay for two weeks leave for every staff member would only compound the damage.
What is the solution? The federal government does have avenues to provide targeted aid to impact workers without paid sick leave through their employers such as leveraging unemployment insurance. They can drop waiting periods to apply and suspend requirements to look for work for a limited time, until this virus passes and affected workers are healthy.
The key is using our social safety net programs in a targeted (and temporary) way rather than imposing widespread costly mandates on all businesses that will worsen hardship for them and their workers.
In times of crisis, it is tempting for some lawmakers to take advantage of fear to expand government’s reach and power. We cannot suspend good judgement in the fog of panic.