Coronavirus highlights importance of paid leave for workers

The novel coronavirus has caused policymakers to revisit several proposals that have been sidelined for far too long.

Eager to contain what the World Health Organization has now declared a pandemic, both the White House and members of Congress are currently considering a nationwide proposal to temporarily extend paid sick leave to more workers. Their rationale goes that if folks are sick with coronavirus, we don't want them choosing between infecting others in pursuit of a paycheck and staying home without pay.

From a public health perspective, this argument certainly makes sense. But the debate over paid leave - whether for recovering from an illness, caring for a family member, or ensuring the health and well-being of a newborn or adopted child - is about much more than public health. It's also about good economics.

A recent study by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) and UIUC's Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) noted that if Illinois were to join 8 other U.S. states and the District of Columbia in passing a paid family leave law, incomes for 220,000 Illinois workers would rise by $1.4 billion annually and labor force participation would increase - particularly among women. The research shows that the policy would have no negative effect on job growth, due to increased levels of consumer spending by those who would earn higher incomes. In addition, it would reduce the burdens of employee turnover, absenteeism, and lost productivity that cumulatively cost U.S. employers an estimated $57 billion per year. And those benefits are only for paid parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child.

Just 14% of U.S. workers currently have access to paid parental leave, and more than 30 million people, or about 24% of the workforce, lack access to paid sick leave. Workers in lower-wage occupations where the financial need to work through illness is often highest - such as restaurant workers and health-care aides - are significantly less likely to have paid leave protections.

A paid leave law would not only offer workers and the public a new tool to contain outbreaks, it would provide a myriad other public health benefits. These include reduced child mortality, increased rates of vaccination, reduced risk of childhood diabetes and obesity and more regular health checkups, according to recent research.

Perhaps that's why polling consistently shows that these proposals are broadly supported by a majority of Republicans and Democrats alike. The question is how to pay for them.

ILEPI and PMCR offer a range of options in their research, from employee payroll deductions to a millionaire's tax to a share of the new revenue that would be generated if Illinois voters approve a progressive income tax in November.

Ultimately, this is not the first time that American workers or American businesses have had to confront the threat of a global pandemic. And it certainly won't be the last. The question is whether we will choose to finally embrace the clear public health and economic benefits of providing paid leave to workers as a core pillar of defending ourselves against these threats.

To date, many have been critical of the White House's response to this outbreak - on preparedness, testing, contingency planning and ensuring our health care providers have the resources they need to protect our communities.

But criticism alone is not a solution.

Beyond washing our hands - as we all should - there's much more that we can do at the state level. The research shows that legislation ensuring that people don't have to work when sick and that parents can stay home to care for their children is a practical long-term solution that would promote both the public's health and the health of our economy.

• Jill Gigstad is a policy researcher at the Illinois Economic Policy Institute. You can read ILEPI's latest study on paid family leave at

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