Workers Need Paid Sick Leave, Not Just Vaccine Mandates

Vaccine mandates can help. But the most unifying way for workers to push for safer workplaces is by fighting for paid sick leave for all.

A server wipes down a table at P J Whelihan's Pub + Restaurant in Pennsylvania on June 25, 2021. (Ben Hasty / MediaNews Group / Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

I’m lucky that my employer has a vaccine mandate. But it doesn’t mean the bosses are keeping us safe: we all need paid sick leave and job protections to survive COVID-19.

Vaccine mandates work. They’re helping to ensure that many Americans — reluctant though they may be to protect themselves — won’t die of COVID-19. While some unions have objected to vaccine mandates — not only police and corrections officers’ unions, which are typically reactionary, but also New York City’s DC 37 and some other public employees’ unions — I’m happy to report that my union, a UAW local representing adjunct professors, has embraced the measure. Some unions, mostly representing service workers, have even demanded that employers impose such mandates. That makes sense: everyone should have the right to a safe workplace, and these days, that should mean protection from unvaccinated people, whenever possible. Workers and unions who see the right to refuse a vaccine as a matter of liberty are wrong; when your freedoms imperil other people’s lives and health, they exit the realm of personal choice and become the kinds of freedoms only Rand Paul or the fossil fuel industry could love.

What I’ve just written is a divisive opinion. Mandates are needed, but the discourse around them is a risky one. Vaccine mandates divide workers. Equally troublingly, they allow bosses to pose as reasonable fans of science who care about their workers and about public health, an unusual opportunity for an employer class that has knowingly sent those working in warehouses, slaughterhouses, hospitals, and many other dangerously infected workplaces to their deaths throughout this pandemic. Workers and unions opposing vaccine mandates are not only wrong on the health and science; they’re also enabling these unfortunate optics in which bosses look smarter and more caring than the rest of us. Most likely, that’s why controversy over vaccine mandates gets so much media coverage: the division among workers stokes outrage on both sides — and therefore clicks — plus, the corporate media doesn’t mind making bosses look good.

But there’s another issue that’s equally important to workplace health and safety during a pandemic: paid sick leave. And the fight for this more unifying demand can help repair some of the workplace and social divisions festering around vaccines and masks.

Workers who are sick need to be able to stay home from work — this is crucial to containing the pandemic. If workers know they can call in sick without missing a paycheck or losing their jobs, everyone is safer. Research shows, not surprisingly, that sick leave policies substantially reduce work attendance by sick workers. Such policies cut down on transmission of the flu during “normal” (pre-COVID) times. Emergency sick leave measures taken by employers and governments in the United States have reduced the spread of COVID-19. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization emphasize the importance of sick leave in all their guidance to employers on COVID-19 prevention, citing extensive research on the matter.

Unlike vaccine mandates, sick leave isn’t the least bit divisive or controversial among workers. It doesn’t provoke outrage among the public; indeed, it enjoyed overwhelming support even before the pandemic, with 85 percent of respondents to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey supporting paid time off for sick workers and more than two-thirds favoring paid time off to care for a sick family member. It’s a policy only an employer could fail to love. That’s probably why it hasn’t generated much media coverage during this pandemic — certainly not compared to the issue of vaccine mandates. No clickbait! However, paid sick leave deserves to be at the forefront of workplace safety struggles during COVID, and it should receive at least as much media coverage as vaccine mandates.

Paid sick leave, unlike vaccine mandates, requires class struggle, because employers never want to pay anyone who isn’t working. In my own workplace, for example, where my employer has been on the cutting edge of mandating vaccines, we don’t even know whether there is a sick leave policy for part-time workers. Our union is pushing for clarification, but it shouldn’t be a mystery.

Paid sick leave has been unevenly distributed. In fact, 29 percent of private-sector workers and 9 percent of public-sector workers lack any kind of paid sick leave, but in the bottom 10 percent of the workforce, the share of those without paid sick leave is more than two-thirds. (In contrast, among the best-paid 10 percent of US workers, 94 percent had paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) Yet the reality is worse than those statistics: millions of Americans have sick leave that they can’t use in practice since they haven’t been working that job long enough, and millions more lack any paid time off to care for a sick child. This state of affairs has always been terrible for these workers’ health and that of their families, but during a pandemic, it puts all of society at risk.

The federal government should require employers to offer paid time off and job security in case of any kind of sickness. The American Rescue Plan failed to do this, although, in classic centrist mode, it did offer some tax credits to employers voluntarily offering these benefits. In failing to mandate that employers give sick workers paid time off, the United States is nearly unique among rich countries. Democratic senator Patty Murray introduced a paid sick leave bill in 2019, but it has languished in committee, and in any case, its language is pathetically weak, requiring timelines within which employees must “earn” paid sick leave rather than simply requiring that everyone who is sick must be paid to stay home. All this is absurd given that paid sick leave for workers is extremely popular, as everyone other than the capitalist class benefits, and there is no chance of sick leave devolving into a heated culture war issue, unlike vaccine mandates.

Aside from lacking the pornographic jolt of a controversy, I’m guessing sick leave lacks media coverage for another reason: many in the media seem to believe that everyone is working from home, which, if true, would make sick leave less relevant to pandemic containment. (It’s best to lie in bed and read novels or watch bad television if you’re sick, for a quicker and more pleasant recovery, but you at least won’t infect anyone by working remotely.) But this delusion is part of the way working-class lives are rendered invisible by the media: despite the volume of media coverage of remote work, only a small percentage of jobs are done remotely (in fact, many can’t be). Even in July 2020, only one in four workers were doing their jobs from home, and that share has dramatically declined.

Encouragingly, paid sick leave has some traction at the municipal and state level. In March 2020, New York City, where I live, passed legislation mandating paid leave for workers who had to quarantine due to COVID-19. New York also requires employers to offer paid sick leave and paid family leave unrelated to COVID-19, but only to “eligible” employees, and there’s a lot of confusion surrounding who is “eligible,” hence the lack of clarity in my own workplace. Other cities, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, are requiring employers to provide paid time off for a range of COVID-19-related reasons. States passing similar laws include California and New Jersey, the latter adding COVID-19-specific provisions to its existing sick leave requirements. We should all demand more reforms of this kind — as well as federal action — even as we continue to press our own employers.

Last week, I contacted the human resources department at my workplace to ask about our paid sick leave policy, although I know from my union work that the policy doesn’t exist. Several automated messages promised to “escalate” my problem to management if I didn’t get a reply, which amused me. I don’t think human resources is going to do much to help me out on this particular matter. But now is surely a good opportunity for workers and unions to “escalate” this broadly popular demand.