As the coronavirus spreads, the public interest requires employers to abandon their longstanding resistance to paid sick leave.
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Most American restaurants do not offer paid sick leave. Workers who fall sick face a simple choice: Work and get paid or stay home and get stiffed. Not surprisingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2014 that fully 20 percent of food service workers had come to work at least once in the previous year “while sick with vomiting or diarrhea.”
As the new coronavirus spreads across the United States, the time has come for restaurants, retailers and other industries that rely on low-wage labor to abandon their parsimonious resistance to paid sick leave. Companies that do not pay sick workers to stay home are endangering their workers, their customers and the health of the broader public. Studies show that paying for sick employees to stay home significantly reduces the spread of the seasonal flu. There’s every reason to think it would help to check the new coronavirus, too.
A number of large companies in recent days have announced one-time changes in policy, promising paid sick leave to workers who catch the coronavirus, or who are quarantined. House Democrats announced an agreement with the White House Friday evening on legislation that would let some workers affected by the coronavirus take up to 10 days of paid sick leave, partially at public expense — an emergency corrective that is urgently necessary to slow the spread of the virus as well as to limit the resulting economic damage.
But such a temporary change in the law is also grossly insufficient. It would amount to a brief suspension of the harsh and dangerous reality that most low-paid workers cannot afford to stay home when they are sick. What happens when the next pandemic arrives?
The only adequate remedy is to permanently require paid sick leave for all workers.
Throughout history, outbreaks of infectious diseases have often served as catalysts for overdue changes in the social compact, including the creation of public health authorities and water and sewer systems. Congress needs to take the broader lesson from this pandemic and pass legislation mandating that every worker can earn up to seven days of paid sick leave.
Corporate executives need not await a change in the law. Plenty of profitable companies already offer paid sick days, making a mockery of arguments about the untenable expense.
And Americans looking for a place to eat or shop can protect their health, and encourage executives to do the right thing, by shunning businesses that refuse to provide paid leave.
Companies have long sought to obscure the details of their sick leave policies, but The Times has obtained new data from The Shift Project, a nationwide survey of tens of thousands of retail workers conducted by the sociologists Daniel Schneider of the University of California, Berkeley; and Kristen Harknett of the University of California, San Francisco. While the federal government reports aggregate data on benefits, the Shift Project data — from its most recent surveys in 2018 and 2019 — provides a look at the benefits offered by individual corporations, published here for the first time. This makes it possible to name names.
The vast majority of workers at large restaurant chains report they do not get paid sick leave, except in the minority of states and cities where it is required by law. The list of malefactors includes the giants of fast food, like McDonald’s, Subway and Chick-fil-A, as well as sit-down restaurants like Cracker Barrel, Outback Steakhouse and the Cheesecake Factory.
And it’s not just restaurants. The data also shows most workers at the supermarket chains Wegmans, Kroger, Meijer and Giant Eagle reported that they did not get paid sick leave. So did workers at retailers including American Eagle, Victoria’s Secret and the Gap.
Some major retailers, though, like Costco, Home Depot and the supermarket chain Aldi, have long offered paid sick leave as a standard benefit. Since the coronavirus arrived in the United States, however, only one major retailer, Darden Restaurants, which owns chains including Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse and employs 170,000 hourly workers, has taken the lesson and announced that it will henceforth provide paid sick leave on a permanent basis.
After an employee at a Canton, Georgia, Waffle House tested positive for the coronavirus, the company said it would continue to pay the employee and quarantined co-workers. But a spokeswoman, Njeri Boss, said the company would not commit to offering similar benefits to other workers affected by the coronavirus. The company declined to comment on its existing paid sick leave policy, but 99 percent of surveyed Waffle House workers said that they don’t get paid sick days. Asked whether customers might reasonably be concerned about eating at a restaurant that refuses to pay sick workers to stay at home, Ms. Boss said the company expected sick workers to stay at home. And would Waffle House commit to paying workers for acting responsibly? “That’s a matter between us and our associates,” she said.
Importantly, large numbers of workers at companies that offer paid sick leave reported that they did not get paid sick leave. At Chipotle, for example, workers are eligible to take up to three paid sick days beginning the day they are hired, but 20 percent of surveyed Chipotle workers said they could not take paid sick days. Walmart, by far the nation’s largest private employer, extended paid sick leave to all employees in February 2019, but only 73 percent of the Walmart workers surveyed since then said that they could take paid sick days.
Mr. Schneider and Ms. Harknett said that workers often are unaware of sick leave policies, or feel unable to take advantage of them. Managers exercise considerable power over scheduling and hours, and the researchers said that workers, in interviews, often expressed concern about the consequences of requesting a sick day. Chipotle conceded in 2017 that a norovirus outbreak centered on a Chipotle in Sterling, Va., was caused by a sick employee who should have been sent home. New York sued Chipotle last year for violating worker protections, including the city’s sick leave law, at five locations in Brooklyn. In February, New York fined Chipotle for firing a worker who took three sick days. “It’s not enough to have an official policy,” Ms. Harknett said. “It has to be a policy that people feel they can use.”
Chipotle said in a statement that its sick leave policy is the best in the fast-food industry, that it is committed to following the law and that it works hard to encourage compliance, including by paying bonuses to employees who follow the company’s food safety procedures.
A federal law mandating paid sick leave is necessary because the coronavirus is just an instance of a broader problem. Norovirus, a major cause of food poisoning cases, sickens some 20 million Americans each year, and kills several hundred. Outbreaks often are traced back to sick food service workers, prompting the C.D.C. to recommend paid leave as a corrective. The spread of seasonal flu and other diseases is also greatly exacerbated by sick workers.
Paid sick leave is standard in other developed nations, and 13 U.S. states, beginning with Connecticut in 2011, have passed laws requiring employers to offer paid sick leave. Some large cities have too, including New York City, Chicago and Washington. That has allowed researchers to examine the real-world costs and benefits. The results set to rest many of the arguments long made by retailers, restaurant owners and other low-wage employers.
Paid sick leave is effective: A recent study found that requiring paid sick leave reduced cases of influenza by 11 percent in the first year after a new law took effect. It’s also relatively inexpensive: In another recent study, researchers calculated that providing paid sick leave cost employers an average of 2.7 cents per hour of paid work. They also found no evidence that the laws led employers to hire fewer workers or to reduce wages or other benefits.
Perhaps the most powerful counterpoint to the industry’s dire predictions is the simple fact that some profitable companies provide paid sick leave. While most fast food companies insist they can’t afford to pay sick workers to stay home, it is a standard benefit at In-n-Out Burger. Alongside the supermarket chains that effectively encourage sick workers to report for work are those that pay sick workers to stay home, like Fred Meyer, Stop & Shop and Safeway.
Democrats initially proposed including a permanent paid sick leave requirement in the coronavirus package. But business groups raised their eyebrows and Republicans insisted on its removal. It is a decision for which Americans should hold businesses accountable.
“If we work sick, then you get sick,” Chipotle workers chanted during a recent protest.
They’re right — and companies have a duty to make sure that stops happening."