A student climbs a stairway at the University of Washington’s Suzzallo library on March 6, after in-person classes were cancelled due to coronavirus concerns. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

A student climbs a stairway at the University of Washington’s Suzzallo library on March 6, after in-person classes were cancelled due to coronavirus concerns. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Editorial: Paid sick leave an effective tool against Covid-19

Sick workers should stay at home, but many can’t go without a paycheck. Paid leave is a simple fix.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Much of the advice we have heard as to how to respond to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak are commonsense practices that even if they take prodding reminders to develop into habits — such as covering coughs with a tissue, not touching the face, frequent handwashing and swapping out handshakes for elbow bumps — are simple and effective steps everyone can easily take to protect themselves and those around them.

Those steps have the added benefit of reassuring us that we do have some control in preventing the spread of this and other diseases; it’s still flu season after all.

One recommendation, however, is more difficult for many to comply with because some may feel less financial control over the situation: staying home and not showing up for work if one feels ill or is showing symptoms including fever, cough and shortness of breath.

For many Americans, staying home from work — if their job doesn’t provide paid sick leave — is not financially possible, especially if it’s for a week or longer. At best, a single parent can make arrangements to take a sick child to the doctor’s office or take a couple of days off to nurse a head cold. But because Covid-19 can have a long incubation period and the illness for some adults can be fairly mild, it may require a longer span of days away from work before they are no longer contagious.

As many as 1 in 3 private sector workers and 7 of 10 low-wage workers — many of those in the service sector who work directly with the public — do not have paid sick leave as one of the benefits of their job. Washington residents, as with residents in several other states, are guaranteed paid sick leave. The sick leave accrues, one hour for every 40 hours of work.

But legislation proposed last week in Congress would significantly increase the time available for those who need to be away from work during a public health crisis. The legislation builds on earlier legislation from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and U.S. Rep. Rose DeLauro, D-Connecticut, that sought to require businesses with 15 or more employees to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave annually.

In response to the Covid-19 crisis, Murray and DeLauro have added language that would immediately provide another 14 days of paid leave during a declared public health emergency, including the current coronavirus outbreak.

“Workers want to do the right thing for themselves, their families, and their communities,” Murray said Friday in a news release. “So especially in the middle of public health crises like this, staying home sick shouldn’t have to mean losing a paycheck or a job.”

Providing that support so that all workers can stay home if they are not well — and especially if testing expands to find those who have contracted the virus — is plainly a public health necessity to contain the spread of the disease.

Fortunately, larger companies already have stepped up to make sure employees who need to stay home are doing so. Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Twitter have asked workers who can work from home to use the option of telecommuting, but they have also said they will continue to pay employees who are home sick. Ideally, the nation’s restaurant chains should be making the same offer.

But providing two or more weeks of sick leave to employees will be more of a stretch for other businesses, particularly small businesses. As well, those who are employed in the so-called gig economy don’t have a traditional employer who can easily be required to pay sick leave. Uber, joining the other tech companies, has said it will provide its drivers 14 days of pay if they contract Covid-19.

The Trump administration, The Washington Post reported Monday, is considering a range of responses to address economic concerns related to the outbreak, including paid sick leave and emergency help for small businesses through the Small Business Administration.

The extent of the outbreak is still not well understood, but the experience of Washington state — even during a well-coordinated response by public health and government officials — raises concerns that the disease’s spread may be broader than now known. Sunday, Gov. Jay Inslee said “mandatory measures” might be needed to increase the social distancing necessary to contain the outbreak, including more event cancellations and closures.

Keeping those with Covid-19 at home, where they can rest and recover, may be one of the best measures for limiting further spread of the disease. Congress should adopt legislation to guarantee paid sick leave, and the Trump administration should extend funding through the SBA to help small businesses offer that necessity to their employees.

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