Paid Leave in the Era of COVID-19



The Coronavirus, or COVID-19, is challenging us all in ways we could never imagine. More employers are reevaluating their paid leave policies to address the spread of COVID-19 and as a part of their business plan.

Until four weeks ago, the national debate focused on addressing paid family leave in the United States. Coming off what was a successful year financially for most employers, business leaders were looking at additional ways to be competitive in a tight labor market. Paid family leave was one benefit revisited time and time again. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle introduced competing ideas to provide more access to paid leave for everyday Americans. President Trump even endorsed (and later signed into law) a measure providing paid family leave for all federal workers. 

Then came the announcement in mid-March of President Trump’s 15-day shelter in place guidance and paid sick leave became an urgent need. Even before the guidance, leaders like SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., were encouraging employers to make exceptions and provide their employees with paid sick leave during this public health emergency.

Congress responded by passing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that requires employers with 500 or fewer employees to provide 10 days of emergency paid sick leave that will go into effect on April 1st and sunsets December 31, 2020. What remains unclear and wildly intriguing is how will the long-term conversation around paid sick leave evolve after the COVID-19 health crisis.

As we’ve seen, once a benefit has been extended, it is extremely hard to pull it back. Will the conversation pivot in such a way that paid sick leave will become the norm for most employers (most employers already offer paid time off for illness – just not to the liking of some policymakers)? If it does, should employers be recognized for the paid leave they already offer? After all, one of the biggest employer challenges to offering generous leave policies is navigating the patchwork of state and local sick leave laws.

Once COVID-19 has been contained, employers and policymakers need to have a serious and thoughtful conversation about what a 21st century paid sick leave policy actually looks like. Some will argue, myself included, that preemption from state and local sick leave laws, because of the federal framework it provides, needs to be a key component in any policy moving forward. Preemption solves two issues at once. Employees gain access to paid leave while providing employers the autonomy to develop paid leave benefits that meet the demands of their individualized industries. 

SHRM has long advocated for these principles and maybe post COVID-19 the circumstances will offer the opportunity for everyone to coalesce around this commonsense approach. If this crisis has taught us one thing, it’s that bipartisanship does exist and is easily achievable when everyone sets their agendas aside.



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