Paid sick leave gutted after many COVID protections disappear

Bill Thompson's wife had never seen him smile with confidence. In the first 20 years of their relationship, an infection in his mouth took away his teeth one by one.

“I had no teeth to smile,” said the 53-year-old freedom fighter from Missouri.

Thompson said he struggled with toothache and painful facial swelling caused by boils while working as a cook at Burger King for years. He desperately needed to see a dentist but said he couldn't take leave without pay. Missouri is one of several states that do not require employers to provide paid sick leave.

So, Thompson would swallow Tylenol and relieve the pain while working on a hot grill.

“We either go to work, get a paycheck,” Thompson said. “Or we take care of ourselves. We can't take care of ourselves because, well, we're stuck in this vicious cycle.”

In a country that was sharply divided about government health mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic, the public is loving the idea of ​​government regulations providing paid sick leave.

Before the pandemic, 10 states and the District of Columbia had laws that required employers to provide paid sick leave. Since then, Colorado, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, and Minnesota have passed laws offering some form of paid sick time. Oregon and California expanded previous paid leave laws. In Missouri, Alaska and Nebraska, advocates are pushing to put the issue on the ballot this fall.

According to data compiled by the Center for World Policy Analysis, the US is one of nine countries that does not guarantee paid sick leave.

In response to the pandemic, Congress passed the Emergency Paid Sick Leave and the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act. These temporary measures allowed employees to take up to two weeks of paid sick leave for COVID-related illness and care. But the provisions expired in 2021.

Economist Hillary Wething said, “When the pandemic hit, we finally saw some real political will to solve the problem of not having federal paid sick leave.”

Wething co-authored a recent Economic Policy Institute report on the state of sick leave in the United States. It found that more than half of the lowest paid workers, 61%, do not take any sick time.

“I was really surprised at how quickly losing pay – because you're sick – can translate into immediate and devastating cuts to a family's household budget,” she said.

Wething said a day or two of lost wages could be the equivalent of a month's worth of gasoline a worker would have to carry to their job, or having to choose between paying an electric bill or buying food. Coming to work sick poses a risk to both coworkers and customers, Wething said. Low-paying jobs that often lack paid sick leave – such as cashiers, nail technicians, home health aides and fast-food workers – involve a lot of face-to-face interaction.

“So paid sick leave is about protecting a community's public health and providing workers with the economic security they so desperately need when they need to take time off from work,” he said.

The National Federation of Independent Business has opposed mandatory sick leave rules at the state level, arguing that workplaces should have some flexibility with their employees when they are sick. The cost of paying employees for leave, extra paperwork and lost productivity fall on small employers, the group said.

According to a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, once these orders went into effect, workers took an average of two more sick days a year than before the laws went into effect.

Illinois' paid leave rules went into effect this year. Lauren Patton is co-owner of Old Bakery Beer Company there. Before this year, the craft brewery did not offer paid leave for its hourly employees. Patton said she supports Illinois' new law but they have to figure out how to pay for it.

“We really try to respect our employees and be a good place to work, and at the same time we get worried about not being able to afford things,” he said.

That could mean customers have to pay more to cover the cost, Patton said.

As for Bill Thompson, he wrote an op-ed for the Kansas City Star newspaper about his dental struggles.

“Despite working nearly 40 hours a week, many of my coworkers are homeless,” he wrote. “Without health care, none of us can afford a doctor or dentist.”

That op-ed gained local attention and, in 2018, a dentist in his community donated his time and labor to remove Thompson's remaining teeth and replace them with dentures. This helped his mouth recover from the infection he had been battling for years. Today, Thompson has a new smile and a job — with paid sick leave — working in food service at a hotel.

In his spare time, he is collecting signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot that would guarantee at least five days of earned paid sick leave a year for Missouri workers. Organizers behind the petition said they have enough signatures to take it to the voters.

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