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 TrumpBiden team says it’s ‘no surprise’ Supreme Court rejected Texas lawsuit Trump praises FDA approval of COVID-19 vaccine: ‘One of the greatest scientific accomplishments in history’ Giuliani says Trump team ‘not finished’ after Supreme Court defeat 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 Family First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFRCA) that is set to expire on Dec. 31 was meant to address the horrors of stories like this. The provisions under this act 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. Without any form of legislative renewal, a staggering 87 million workers are projected to lose the emergency access to paid leave granted in recent months.
Recent proposals from a bipartisan group of senators notably leaves paid leave on the chopping block, putting our collective safety and economic security at risk. 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 can blunt the worst of the damage. These are essential measures, but we must also ensure paid leave is in our arsenal. 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 sick leave policies could spare workers the impossible choice between earning money for food and rent and protecting their co-workers and communities. Paid sick 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 emergency paid leave provision that passed this year was a positive and provided immediate support to millions of employees and business owners alike. But it only covered around a quarter of the workforce, most notably leaving out essential workers, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color and low wage working people, and exempted businesses both with over 500 employees and less than 50 people. This omission has left up to 106 million workers without the protections they need to economically survive and recover from this pandemic.
States are responding in their own ways with some success, but a patchwork approach doesn’t serve the best needs of working families. The life and death of our people should not be left to the discretion of individual states. It’s something all Americans deserve. The United States offers some of the worst sick leave policies to its citizens among the world’s wealthy industrialized countries. Researchers have already established that access to paid sick leave decreases rates of transmission among influenza-like diseases. Many countries with developed economies have strengthened or extended their sick leave policies during the pandemic.
In America, where the lowest-paid workers 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 worker. 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. If we do not act to renew and expand paid sick leave legislation immediately, 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.