Early in the pandemic, the daughter of immigrants who worked at Smithfield meat packing plant in South Dakota sent a message to a local reporter on Facebook, relaying that at least one case of Covid-19 had been confirmed in a worker. It quickly became clear that many more unconfirmed cases had been spreading uncontrolled throughout the plant. This woman’s parents, like most other employees at the plant, could not afford to stay home. They had no choice but to report to work, a foot away from their co-workers on either side. As they did their jobs, the number of confirmed cases among Smithfield employees rose around them, from 80 to 190 to 238.
As of October, 44,000 employees of meatpacking plants have been infected with Coronavirus, and more than 200 have died. President TrumpDonald TrumpOne person shot in Washington state during violent election protest Pro-Trump protestors, counter-protesters and police clash in DC after day of election demonstrations COVID-19 infections spread rapidly as officials race to distribute vaccine MORE ordered that meat packing plants stay open during the worst of the pandemic, all while employees were given very little protections. In one Tyson meat processing plant in Iowa, a lawsuit alleges that supervisors placed bets on how many workers would become infected as a Covid-19 outbreak spread through the plant. In the end, more than 10,000 Tyson employees did get the virus.
The inclusion of paid family and medical leave in the Family First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFRCA) was meant to address the horrors of stories like this. It guaranteed two weeks of paid sick leave to public workers and private-sector workers at companies with fewer than 500 employees, and up to 10 weeks of paid family leave to an employee who is unable to work because they need to look after their child whose school or childcare center closed due to Covid-19. And yet, Congress has failed to consider these workers in the latest Covid relief package, and a staggering 87 million workers are projected to lose the emergency access to paid leave that is set to expire on Dec. 31.
The leading bi-partisan proposal leaves paid leave on the chopping block, putting our collective safety and economic security at risk. A study by Pichler et al. (2020) found that paid leave helped to “flatten the curve.” States where workers gained access to paid sick leave because of FFCRA had 400 fewer confirmed Covid-19 cases per day in the subsequent weeks. Multiplied by the 39 states affected, that’s over 15,000 prevented cases per day.
With daily coronavirus cases again surging to record levels and expected to worsen in the coming months, many politicians and health experts are hoping that a nation-wide mask mandate and a rapid rollout of a vaccine in early 2021 can blunt the worst of the damage. The omission of paid leave from a Covid relief package leaves out a critical intervention for fighting the virus. If we have learned anything in this crisis it is that we are all connected. The inability of workers to take paid sick or family and medical leave puts us all at risk.
Governments and academics both recognize that sick workers who cannot afford to stay home spread the coronavirus by working while sick. A single infected worker can infect dozens of others, particularly in industries like meatpacking and package distribution, where workers are stationed side-by-side with limited air ventilation. Multiply this dynamic by tens of thousands of workers, and you have a major vector driving infections across America. Adequate paid leave policies could spare workers the impossible choice between earning money for food and rent and protecting their coworkers and communities. Paid leave also protects public health and economic recovery more broadly: surging cases easily spread across entire communities and trigger shutdowns of schools and businesses. It’s in everyone’s interest to afford workers the protection to quarantine or recover at home with dignity.
The Covid Relief package currently being negotiated in Congress will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Luckily, paid leave does not. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, extending the paid sick and paid family leave provisions in FFCRA would cost $1.8B for three months. It is impractical to exclude one of our most effective tools for fighting the virus when the return on investment is so high.
As workers have struggled to stay both employed and healthy throughout this crisis, our leaders are leaving these workers on the cutting room floor. In America, where the lowest-paid working people are also least likely to have access to paid leave through their employers, it’s both an ethical imperative and a vital public health measure to guarantee adequate paid leave for every working person. Congress has an obligation to do so. From a meat processing plant worker in Iowa to a front-line grocery cashier in New York City, we must ensure that when people get sick, they can stay home. Any stimulus proposal must include emergency paid leave, without it, the price we pay in human suffering and infection rates will be immeasurable.
Corinne Roller is legislative director at PL+US: Paid Leave for the United States.
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