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States take on Covid sick leave with federal help nowhere in sight

LOS ANGELES — The Omicron strain has infected workers at unprecedented rates, but the bipartisan anxiety that pushed Congress to pass a temporary paid sick leave mandate just two years ago is long gone.

Federal inaction is pushing the fight to blue states like California and Illinois, which are debating paid leave policies. Others are expected to follow with their own plans.

“The states are where the real power is,” said Josephine Kalipeni, executive director of Family Values at Work. The advocacy group, which has pushed for more paid leave for years, is now directing its attention away from Washington.

The vast majority of workers nationwide have had no extra paid days to take off while recovering from a coronavirus diagnosis or caring for an infected family member since the fall, when Congress allowed a law that gave tax credits to businesses that offered supplemental Covid leave to expire.

President Joe Biden is exploring whether to revive a Covid sick leave program Congress let expire last year, but any mandate on employers would likely be stonewalled by Republicans in the Senate — who declined to extend it even under a friendly Trump administration.

California and Illinois are considering laws that would give extra sick time to employees like school staff and food service workers, who have staged protests in recent weeks over a lack of Covid protections. California lawmakers are scheduled to vote this week on a temporary mandate pushed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Once a fiercely partisan issue, paid leave garnered more Republican support than ever before because of the pandemic and a supportive Trump administration. Congress cleared the Families First bill in 2020 — which included money for a Covid-related paid sick leave program — with a number of GOP votes.

But there were limits to the cooperation. Democrats favored a comprehensive national program that would allow more robust state policies to stand; Republicans preferred opt-in options like tax credits that gave employers greater flexibility. Business groups, for their part, were open to a national policy, but wanted their members to be able to opt out of state requirements, thus eliminating the need to comply with an array of policies.

Congress eventually allowed the Families First program to lapse, and further efforts by advocates, unions and others to expand the benefit were unsuccessful. Biden proposed 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave in his original Build Back Better proposal, but congressional Democrats cut that down to just four weeks — and at one point, it was scrapped from the package entirely.

By the time the highly contagious Omicron variant began spreading through communities in late December and early January, there was no federal program in place. Nearly 9 million Americansreported missing time from work in January because they were sick with Covid or caring for someone who was.

Employees who have already exhausted their sick days or are among the 33 million workers who lack any paid sick leave benefits have been forced to give up paychecks or return to work sick, putting others at risk and further straining businesses.

“You actually think about it and say ‘Should I go to work? How am I going to pay my bills?’”said Laurie Buzzanco Craig, a home care worker in Connecticut who became sick with Covid this year and was out for 17 days. “But I can’t go to work, I can’t subject this person to this.”

The Biden administration has tried to address the shortfall where it can. The U.S. Treasury Department announced on Jan. 6 that unspent federal funds received through the American Rescue Plan can go toward employee benefits, including sick leave. That won’t help states like California that have already allocated all of that aid, but billions in ARP money is still unspent nationwide.

“I do expect in coming weeks we’re going to see more states and cities proposing really a range of different approaches,” said Jared Make, vice president of worker advocacy group A Better Balance.

Advocates hope state action will spur businesses to get on board with a national program that would allow employers to comply with a single standard.

“Businesses and business lobbies are on record saying that they don’t want a lot of different state programs,” said Vicki Shabo, who studies paid leave at New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “The quickest way to get what they’re asking for is a federal solution that honors and recognizes state programs but that sets a federal standard for everybody.”

But employers counter that the blossoming number of programs strengthens their argument for a different kind of paid leave program than that proposed under Build Back Better: one that supersedes state and local policies.

“The chamber continues to believe there is a fiscally responsible, bipartisan approach to providing a federal paid family leave benefit,” Marc Freedman, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of employment policy, said in a statement. “We believe that such a deal can be forged, but this partisan reconciliation bill is certainly not the vehicle to achieve a sensible solution to making sure paid family leave is available on a nationwide basis.”

The sick-leave benefits can’t come soon enough for frontline workers who are most vulnerable to Covid and often the least able to weather unpaid time off.

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Buzzanco Craig, the home care worker from Connecticut, said she’s been without any paid sick leave since October and was denied a request for paid time off after her mother and sister died of Covid. When she got sick herself and had to go without pay, she said, her bills racked up.

Home care workers, who are disproportionately women and people of color, are typically paid low wages and often classified as independent contractors — excluding them from employee benefits.

Millions of so-called essential workers whose jobs require them to be in-person are in the same position.

“We still have people working on the frontlines of this pandemic, providing care to people, who can’t themselves go to the doctor or take a day off when they are sick,” said Diedre Murch, lead organizer for SEIU 1199 New England. “They are having to make impossible choices.”

Newsom and state Democratic lawmakers announced this month they’d reached a deal on legislation that would require businesses with at least 26 employees to provide up to two weeks of Covid leave. Workers could use some of the time off to care for children whose schools or day cares are closed for Covid-related reasons, even if they aren’t sick.

California’s policy would require employers to absorb the costs. But it would also restore business tax credits that were suspended during the pandemic, a concession to groups like the California Chamber of Commerce that pushed for the state to fund the program.

Lawmakers in Illinois are pushing a more targeted bill supported by Gov. JB Pritzker that would give emergency sick leave to vaccinated employees at K-12 schools and colleges, an effort to quell frustrations among staff that has led to school closures in Chicago and elsewhere.

Some states didn’t wait for the Omicron surge to expand paid leave. In Maryland last year, lawmakers passed a bill giving essential workers paid Covid sick leave. New York has since March 2020 provided Covid-related paid leave for workers who would not otherwise be eligible to receive the benefit.

Elsewhere, years-long efforts to enact paid leave laws have recently picked up steam. In Delaware, the governor recently signed on to a revised billthat would provide residents with 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave funded by payroll contributions.

“If the federal government does fail to act, I would expect to see a flurry of activity in the next year or two in states,” Shabo said. “The fight remains, and maybe was even was catalyzed by BBB stalling.”

Shannon Young contributed to this report.

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