Paid Sick Leave Mandates Hold Promise in Containing COVID-19

Paid sick leave (PSL) mandates like those found in the federal government’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act may be helping to slow the spread of COVID-19, according to a new study by health economists at Georgia State and Tulane universities.

Since 2007, several state and local governments have enacted laws requiring employers to provide their workers with paid sick leave. Michael Pesko, an associate professor in Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, and co-author Kevin Callison studied the effects of these staggered mandate adoptions using multiple government-collected survey data sources from 2005 to 2018.

The mandates were effective in increasing the number of workers holding Paid Sick Leave coverage, particularly those in low-wage industries who were unlikely to have previously received PSL benefits from their employers, they found. Women and racial/ethnic minorities benefitted disproportionately from the PSL mandates.

“These mandates reduced the number of people attending work while sick, which is similar to an earlier study showing influenza-like disease rates decreased after employees gained access to paid sick leave,” said Pesko. “If paid sick leave helps stop people from attending work while sick and prevents the spread of disease as a result, this has important policy implications in today’s fight to contain COVID-19.”

Paid Sick Leave reduces the rate of those working while sick by 4.5 percentage points on average for workers in industries with historically low rates of PSL, such as the accommodation and food service industries. PSL mandates are particularly likely to increase work absences among women and households with children, where workers may be using their benefits to care for a sick child or other family obligations.

“What are the policy implications? The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which went into effect April 1, is the first congressionally passed bill that provides Paid Sick Leave for employees in medium- and small-sized businesses with coronavirus issues,” Pesko said. “We believe that the bill will reduce people attending work with COVID-19 because it pays for them to stay home and recover. This bill is, therefore, an important component in COVID-19 containment efforts.”

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