COVID-19 Protection for Working People

[ACTION ALERT: Click here to watch and read testimony about the urgent need for Emergency Paid Sick Time, submitted by workers, experts, activists, and leaders in the Raise Up MA coalition.]

In order to ensure that all those who feel sick or may have been exposed to COVID-19 stay home and avoid exposing others to the virus, all workers must have the ability to miss work to care for themselves or their family, without losing the pay they need to make ends meet. In the face of the COVID-19 outbreak and the massive economic disruption it is creating, Massachusetts must urgently act to protect working people.

Low-wage workers are our first line of defense against COVID-19, but they are feeling the greatest economic impact of the outbreak. Healthcare and long-term care workers, janitorial workers, food service workers, child care workers, municipal workers, adjunct faculty, gig workers, and others on the front lines are critical to supporting our communities during the outbreak. Women, people of color, and immigrants are all overrepresented in frontline occupations and industries.

But many front-line workers are struggling economically and lack basic economic protections including adequate paid sick time. No worker should face a choice between going to work sick or losing the pay they desperately need to make ends meet.

Massachusetts’ Earned Sick Time law, passed by the voters in 2014, provides 40 hours of paid sick time yearly, but that sick time must be accumulated over time, and for thousands of workers this isn’t enough to meet the scale and impact of this public health crisis. The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provided 10 days of additional paid sick time for many workers, and it made a real difference: states that gained access to paid sick time under the FFCRA experienced about 400 fewer cases of COVID-19 per day, according to research from Cornell University and the Swiss Economic Institute. But the FFCRA had big coverage gaps that left millions of front-line workers without paid sick time, including workers at companies with more than 500 employees, and many employees of health care and residential facilities. The Center for American Progress estimates that at least 1.8 million workers in Massachusetts were not covered by the FFCRA’s paid sick time protections.

To ensure that those workers do not feel pressure to go to work when they may be infectious, we’ve worked for months to pass state legislation that would cover the gap in federal law, providing ten additional work-days of job-protected emergency paid sick time to Massachusetts employees not covered by the federal FFCRA’s paid sick time provisions. But despite bipartisan supermajority support in both chambers of the Legislature, the proposal did not come up for a vote in the 2020 legislative session.

Now, the situation has gotten worse: the FFCRA’s paid sick time protections expired at the end of December, leaving all Massachusetts workers without access to emergency paid sick time benefits if they contract or are exposed to COVID-19. Massachusetts’s new paid family and medical leave program, which took effect January 1, allows workers with serious medical problems as a result of COVID-19 to receive partial wage replacement if they take significant time off from work to recover. However, the new program has a one-week waiting period to receive wage replacement benefits, which means it will not help lower-income workers who cannot afford to miss an entire week of pay to isolate or quarantine. They need emergency paid sick time now.

Massachusetts will not be able to safely reopen our economy if tens of thousands of workers feel the need to go to work even when they might be sick. To protect the public health of our communities, Massachusetts needs to pass Emergency Paid Sick Time legislation to ensure that all workers can take paid sick time during this crisis.

Our Emergency Paid Sick Time legislation filed by Representative Donato (HD.531) and Senator Lewis (SD.386), which was co-sponsored by more than 100 members of the House and Senate last session, would provide ten additional work-days (80 hours) of job-protected paid sick time for immediate use during the COVID-19 outbreak. This Emergency Paid Sick Time would be available to employees not covered by the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)’s paid sick time provisions:
a) Employees working for a private employer with more than 500 employees; and
b) Employees working at health care or residential facilities that have the option to exempt themselves from the FFCRA.

Workers taking Emergency Paid Sick Time would be paid by their employers at their regular rate of pay, up to a maximum of $850/week. Employers would then be fully reimbursed by the state. The legislation creates a COVID-19 emergency paid leave time fund with an initial deposit of $55 million.

Emergency Paid Sick Time would be available, with no waiting period, for use:
a) For a worker to care for themselves if they are diagnosed with COVID-19, experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and awaiting a diagnosis, quarantined or self-quarantined, or reasonably believes their health is at risk; or
b) For a worker to take care of a family member, including a domestic partner or someone with whom the worker resides, who is diagnosed with COVID-19, experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and awaiting a diagnosis, quarantined or self-quarantined, or reasonably believes their health is at risk.