The COVID-19 pandemic has made evident the vulnerabilities in the U.S. healthcare and economic systems. One issue that has been at the forefront during the current crisis is the absence of prolonged, comprehensive paid family, medical, and sick leave to support workers and public health.
Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. was an outlier among developed countries due to the lack of national leave policies, which forced a vast majority of workers to rely on the munificence of employers to gain access to paid leave. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 32 million workers (27 percent) in the private sector did not have access to paid sick leave in 2019. This gap is particularly dangerous for frontline industry workers who face higher risks of exposure to COVID-19. With many schools remaining remote and a possible resurgence of the virus on the horizon, the need for paid leave is in demand more than ever. However, according to The Wall Street Journal, experts are stating many workers have already exhausted their available paid leave due to illness or care for a family member and cannot afford to take additional leave without pay. This predicament turns attention toward employers’ need to revisit their paid time off (PTO) policies and flexible work schedules in an effort to support employees and public health.
Similar to health insurance benefits, employers should design and market their paid leave policies as a way to attract and retain a skilled workforce. As the absence of paid leave for many workers is on the rise, companies large and small are incorporating these strategies to remain competitive and supportive throughout the pandemic and beyond:
Allow employees to carry over unused PTO to the next year or increase the number of hours allowed to be carried over (within state law guidelines). The current crisis has limited travel and vacations plans, resulting in employees opting to save PTO for a later date. Implementing a roll over option reduces the stress on employees to utilize PTO within a defined period.
Offer flexible time off (FTO), also known as unlimited PTO. Employees do not accrue time off or have annual limits under FTO. Eligible employees can utilize paid time off for rest, vacation, medical and other personal appointments, short-term illness, or care for a family member. Employers can set restrictions on certain days or blackout periods as needed.
Consider flexible work schedules for employees. Strategically allowing employees to shift work hours minimizes their need to file for leave.
The absence of national paid leave policies leaves employers, workers, and the public vulnerable and unprepared for an inevitable future pandemic. Without readily available access to paid leave, workers in need of income are more likely to go to work with a contagious illness, risking public health. As part of the COVID-19 pandemic response in March, Congress passed the first national paid leave law with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA); making it easier for U.S. workers to receive paid leave due to COVID-19 illness or to care for family members. Although these laws are critical in supporting employees with caregiving responsibilities and workers recovering from COVID-19, they are temporary, and have an expiration date of December 31, 2020. Perhaps now, more than ever, the U.S. needs a permanent paid leave law to support workers’ health and economic security. As policymakers contemplate how to create these permanent laws that address the diverse needs of workers, employers can rise to the occasion and implement their own effective paid leave policies capable of adequately supporting their workforce for the duration of the pandemic and into the future.