Legislators push to support service workers who lost income due to Covid-19

One New Hampshire senator is pushing for a worker relief fund, while California mandates service worker sick pay.

Throughout the pandemic, sick restaurant workers have faced an impossible choice: stay at home but lose their paychecks and possibly their employment, or come into work sick and risk their health and that of their colleagues and diners. A New Hampshire state senator, however, recently began a push to dissolve this binary choice. Her constituents described having lost days, if not weeks, of pay, as the coronavirus has decimated their industry and left them teetering on the brink of financial precarity. 

Writing to the governor’s office of emergency relief and recovery in late January, Democratic state senator Rebecca Perkins Kwowa pressed for the establishment of a relief fund that would provide financial support for restaurant and retail workers who lost shifts due to Covid-19 infection and quarantine. “As these workers are the ones who continued to show up and keep our society functioning during the darkest days of the pandemic, we should have some fund or programs in place to help them during their temporary period of inability to work,” Perkins Kwowa wrote.  

The United States is one of the few industrialized nations without a national paid sick leave policy, an absence that has acutely hit service workers as the pandemic raged over the past two years. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which required that private employers with less than 500 employees provide up to two weeks of paid sick and family leave for workers infected with Covid, among other provisions, expired at the end of December 2020. (Through the American Rescue Plan Act, employers could claim tax credits for voluntarily providing paid sick and family leave between April to September 2021.) This left state and municipal bodies as well as employers as the sole arbiters of workers’ ability to take paid time off or recoup funds for pandemic-related losses. 

“We all wish COVID was over. It is not,” Perkins Kwoka wrote in her letter. “None of these businesses or workers want to be in a position of asking for aid; let’s not make it any harder on them by failing to anticipate their needs.”

“They’ve been at our lunch counters, at their store counters and just keeping us functioning for this whole time, and I think we owe it to them to make sure that we’re fully aware of the fact that this is still an exposure situation for them; it’s still a risk to their health; [and] it’s still very difficult for their families and for their employers,” Perkins Kwoka told The Counter. 

The New Hampshire legislator isn’t the only lawmaker who has seen a pressing need for paid sick leave policies covering workers. Last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that requires businesses with 26 or more employees to provide supplemental paid time off to those recovering from or caring for ailing family members with Covid, retroactively covering through January 2022 and expiring September 30, 2022. A previous mandate covering paid Covid-related sick leave in the state expired this past September. 

“​​The governor and Legislature heard frontline workers loud and clear, and we appreciate them acting with urgency to get this done,” California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski said in a statement, adding, “Even with the spread of Omicron showing signs of slowing, COVID sick leave will remain in place until the fall of this year to provide a layer of protection against the next variant or surge.” 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks with restaurant staff during a bill signing ceremony to extend COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave for workers. 020922

California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks with restaurant staff during a bill signing ceremony to extend COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave for workers.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Despite the tenuous nature of government mandates and relief for Covid-related illness, these policies have been a lifeline for those in the hospitality sector. Currently, only a little over a dozen states and Washington D.C. and at least 19 cities and counties have permanent paid sick leave mandates, according to the advocacy group A Better Balance. Yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 50 percent of leisure and foodservice workers had access to paid sick leave in 2021, compared to 77 percent of all private sector employees. These jobs typically require that employees work in dense, indoor environments in-person, increasing the likelihood of contracting the coronavirus. And in several cases, fast-food franchises illegally denied workers time off despite being entitled to paid Covid sick leave, or stymied their ability to take time off with logistical requirements like showing a doctor’s note or getting someone to cover their shift. 

“There are always these inequalities in access,” said Daniel Schneider, a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and co-director of the Shift Project, a collaboration between Harvard and the University of California, San Francisco, that surveys working conditions for retail and service workers. “And what’s made it sort of egregious these days is that they are basically orthogonal to the risk—that those who have the access don’t have the risk, those who don’t [have access] have a lot of the risk.”

Business interests have pushed back on these paid sick leave policies, arguing that they place undue financial strain on already-struggling businesses, and that employees are likely to abuse the system. A 2020 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study, however, found that sick pay is not very costly to employers—roughly 20 cents per hour that an employee works. And the investment of covering employees’ isolation and recovery doubles as insurance against more employees or customers catching the same illness, which could ultimately cost employers more in the long run.

“None of these businesses or workers want to be in a position of asking for aid; let’s not make it any harder on them by failing to anticipate their needs.”

“If [restaurant] owners do not offer that benefit, 50 percent of employees do not have that benefit,” said Nicolas Ziebarth, a health and labor economist at Cornell University and co-author of the NBER study. “If you think that’s a good solution, then you can defend it, of course, but it also means that you have more people going to work sick spreading diseases.”

Putting employers in charge of determining workers’ access to sick pay grants them the power to alter employees’ access to such security, particularly if it is tied to an emergency like the pandemic. This past December, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced its recommended quarantine period from 10 to five days, corporations such as Amazon and Walmart cut paid Covid isolation time for employees accordingly. Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow at New America researching paid leave policies, said that these actions taken by employers reflect how putting the paid leave policies in the hands of business owners “necessarily tak[es] power and control away from workers who know what’s best for their own health and for their families.” 

Having paid sick leave recognized as a legal policy, be it permanent or as a temporary Covid measure, is a crucial first step in raising the floor for precarious workers such as those in hospitality, said Schneider. Recent survey data from the Shift Project from September to November last year showed that 85 percent of retail and service workers overall and 79 percent of restaurant workers in California reported having access to sick leave, a much narrower gap compared to 50 percent of workers overall and 33 percent of restaurant workers nationally. 

Even so, having a legal right to paid sick leave and taking steps to inform workers that they have such a right, doesn’t always translate to them using it. Schneider said that some workers have cited their managers pressuring them to come into work or fearing retaliation as reason not to take time off. In other cases, they were concerned that by taking sick leave they would be letting their colleagues down. 

“This particular urgent problem of paid sick leave, it is really bound up with the broader set of precarious labor practices around hours and schedules in the restaurant sector,” said Schneider. “There’s a lot to do even once these rights in theory are on the books.”

Matthew Sedacca is a Reporting Fellow at The Counter, focusing on the nation’s recovery efforts from the Covid-19 pandemic across the food industry. He previously worked at The New York Times and won a National Magazine Award for his writing on the histories of residential buildings for New York magazine.