Pandemic prompts more companies to offer paid vacation and sick leave, but millions of workers still fail to do so

Now, more than 19 months after the start of the pandemic, many large employers have expanded their sick leave and paid time off offerings to better meet the needs of employees, according to data from Mercer LLC and others. But while many workers who already had paid time off now enjoy even greater benefits, many other low-paid, part-time and hourly workers, as well as those employed by small businesses, still have no benefits. paid leave and sick leave, which worsens the disparities between these workers.

As of March 2021, 23% of private sector employees had access to paid family leave, which can be used to care for a sick family member, according to the latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is up from 20% in March 2020. More workers have had access to paid sick leave – 77% of private sector workers, up slightly from 2020 – but there are disparities according to income levels, according to federal statistics. Of the top 10% of U.S. employees in the private sector, 95% of employees had paid sick leave, while 33% of the lowest-paid 10% of employees had access to paid sick leave.

“In particular, low-wage workers, people with multiple part-time jobs, front-line workers, grocery and retail workers were often unable to access paid time off,” says Ruth Martin, Senior Vice President and Chief Workplace Justice at MomsRising, an organization that advocates for mothers on issues ranging from affordable child care to paid family leave.

Ms Martin believes adopting paid leave as part of the budget reconciliation package debated in Congress would help close the gap between workers in companies, who may have seen access to paid leave proliferate during the pandemic, and hourly workers who may still lack access.

“We’re going to be dealing with Covid for a while, but over the past 18 months the cancer hasn’t gone away,” Ms. Martin said. “Babies don’t just go away. Leave beyond a pandemic.”

No cushion

For many workers, disparate leave arrangements lead to loopholes at critical times. When Krista Dixon and her husband, 4-year-old daughter and 5-month-old twins tested positive for Covid-19 in January, she was able to take a week of paid time to recuperate and care for her family. But in the second week of her 40s, while still experiencing severe shortness of breath, she returned to remote work.

Ms Dixon used up her accumulated sick leave, which stood at less than two weeks, after giving birth to her twins the previous July. She took the remainder of her 10 week maternity leave without pay. She fears that the lingering symptoms of Covid that she and her husband have both experienced for months are the result of not being able to take the time to fully recover.

“The fear of having to take unpaid time off or not being able to take care of yourself – you may have to go to the doctor – this stress just adds and adds to it,” says Ms. Dixon, who is 28 years old.

Current federal law does not provide for paid national leave, although nine states in the United States and Washington, DC have passed laws on paid family medical leave. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, only about a third of workers live in these states. The spending bill in Congress could impose up to 12 weeks of paid time off for workers caring for new children or sick family members.

An April 2021 survey by Invest in America and Data for Progress found that 75% of likely US voters from all political parties support a national policy of paid family and medical leave, of which 64% are Republicans and 91% Democrats .

Make progress

In the face of the current shortage, employers have taken action on sick leave and paid time off, both to accommodate existing workers and to attract new talent in a turbulent market.

“The pandemic has prompted employers to double down on some of the strategies they’ve already implemented in recent years, from a paid vacation perspective,” says Rich Fuerstenberg, senior partner at Mercer LLC, a consulting firm.

A growing number of employers are also moving towards policies of unlimited paid leave. Additionally, Mercer has seen an increase in the number of employers who have chosen to consolidate vacation or sick leave days into a single bank: 68% of employers surveyed had done so, up from 61% in 2018 and 49 % in 2013. Among other things, the single bank configuration allows employees to use sick days for additional vacation if they do not use them due to illness.

Mr. Fuerstenberg adds that paid leave for caregivers as well as paid time off for volunteering and bereavement have continued to grow.

Such programs are becoming more and more common that many large employers in various industries feel compelled to offer them as part of a core benefit package.

“These programs started in sectors where the war for talent has been going on for years: high tech, investment banking, professional services,” says Fuerstenberg, adding that today, thanks in part to the job market Tense, “we’ve seen these programs expand into industries like retail and hospitality,” even for hourly workers.

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