Who benefited from expanded paid sick leave policies for service workers? And who didn’t? Who benefited from expanded paid sick leave policies for service workers? And who didn’t?

Boston Fed report: Frontline workers at larger firms lacked added paid sick leave during COVID-19 Boston Fed report: Frontline workers at larger firms lacked added paid sick leave during COVID-19

April 5, 2022

During the pandemic, the public became more conscious of health-at-work issues for service-sector employees, who often do their jobs in high-traffic, indoor settings where COVID-19 spreads more easily.

Many service employees had to keep working in-person each day – in places like grocery stores, pharmacies, and cafeterias – without paid sick leave. But even though it was crucial for these workers to stay home while sick to limit the spread of COVID-19, Congress didn’t require companies with more than 500 employees to expand paid sick leave offerings during the pandemic.

That meant these workers depended on the companies to voluntarily offer this benefit. A new brief –“Good if you can get it: Benefits and inequalities in the expansion of paid sick leave during COVID-19,” released Tuesday by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston – indicates that, as a result, many frontline workers were never offered expanded paid sick leave.

“Without a federal paid sick leave guarantee – and the U.S. is really unique in not offering this – when you leave it up to employers, you're going to end up with large shares of workers not covered,” said brief co-author Kristen Harknett, a sociology professor at the University of California San Francisco.

Inequalities in paid sick leave widened during the pandemic

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed by Congress in March 2020, expanded paid sick leave, family leave, and medical leave for certain public employers and private employers with between 50 and 500 employees. But private companies with more than 500 workers were exempt from the law.

The brief aimed to find out how many workers from large companies that weren’t required to offer expanded sick leave ended up getting it anyway, said co-author Daniel Schneider, a former visiting scholar at the Boston Fed and a professor of public policy and sociology at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

“I think it's critical to understand whether these workers were afforded the basic necessities needed to survive a pandemic while doing these crucial jobs, or whether they continued on in precarious circumstances,” Schneider said.

Brief finds access to additional paid sick leave “sharply unequal”

Harknett and Schneider collected their data through the Shift Project, a joint effort between their universities to survey service workers at employers large enough to be exempt from the law.

Using targeted advertisements on Instagram and Facebook, the researchers surveyed nearly 9,250 hourly service employees from more than 100 of the nation’s biggest companies during March through May 2020. They asked about working conditions – including whether employers were offering more paid time off than usual. The researchers then compared those results to data from a fall 2019 survey, which used the same methods to ask workers about access to paid sick leave.

In the 2019 survey, more than half of service-sector workers employed by large companies (55%) lacked access to paid leave. By May 2020, just 17% of respondents reported being offered additional paid sick leave.

The researchers also found that access to additional paid time off was “sharply unequal” by race and gender. In the 2020 survey, 21% of white men reported receiving additional paid time off, compared to 18% of men of color, 14% of white women and 13% of women of color.

Differences in firms’ paid sick leave policies drove gaps

Schneider said differences in paid sick leave policies between companies drove the gaps they discovered. For instance, before the pandemic white workers and men were more likely to have jobs at companies that voluntarily offered more paid sick leave. Those companies were also more likely to expand paid sick leave during COVID-19.

In contrast, women and people of color were more likely to work at companies that offered comparatively less or no paid sick leave before COVID-19, and those companies did not change these policies during the pandemic.

“It’s pretty striking,” Harknett said. “There are these subtle processes that sort people based on their identities into different employers and occupations, and there are real consequences to that.”

The brief’s authors also found that workers who did have access to expanded paid leave during COVID-19 were less likely to go to work sick, happier at their jobs, and more likely to want to stay at their jobs.

“That’s a really important benefit for them, but also for public health,” Schneider said. “There’s also a real argument here that … you can improve workers’ job satisfaction and reduce their intention to (change jobs) by giving them some paid sick leave.”

Read the full brief here.

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