Amended and New State and Local Laws and Guidance on Paid Sick Days in Response to COVID-19

By: Emma Williamson and Adewale Maye

*Updated November 2020*

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the United States, we had no national paid sick days law in place to protect individual and community health—leaving millions of workers and their families at risk. The Healthy Families Act, which would establish a national paid sick days law, was first introduced in 2004, but has yet to be enacted, even though there is overwhelming public support and substantial evidence of its effectiveness as an anti-poverty and public health measure. In spite of federal inaction, 14 states, including D.C., and 22 cities and counties have enacted such laws to protect workers and their families from unforeseen illness and ensure economic security.

On March 18, 2020, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), providing some employees up to 10 paid sick days and up to 12 weeks of family leave (with 10 of the weeks paid), in addition to other critical measures. This was the first time Congress required federal paid leave for private sector workers—an important first step in ensuring workers earning low wages have access to these benefits during the pandemic. However, the emergency paid sick leave provisions excluded over 68 million people, including all employees working for businesses with 500 or more employees. In addition, FFCRA allowed employers of health care providers and emergency responders to opt out of providing leave. Notwithstanding these exclusions and ineffective implementation, it has been extremely effective. Researchers estimate that FFCRA paid sick leave helped reduce the spread of COVID by 400 cases per day in states where workers gained access to sick leave.

In addition to the FFCRA paid leave provisions, states and local jurisdictions acted swiftly to protect their workforce and communities. Several passed new laws or amended their existing paid sick leave laws. Numerous localities in California passed laws to fill the gaps left by FFCRA. Some governors established short-term protections through Executive Order and agency action. And many states amended or expanded their administrative guidance to clarify how workers could use their laws in light of COVID-19. These laws provide many key examples of how to provide effective paid sick days and respond to the national health emergency. While state and local paid sick days laws have been enormously important in covering workers and modeling successful approaches, a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction strategy leaves out far too many workers, families, and communities who need help the most.

It is long past time for a national, permanent paid sick days law. FFCRA and many of these state and local laws that responded to the pandemic will sunset on December 31, 2020. Too many workers and their families are already suffering health and economic consequences without a national paid sick days law. Furthermore, the lack of a national paid sick days law harms our public health infrastructure and economy. Reaching all workers—with adequate paid sick days that benefit workers, children, mothers, people with health challenges, and people of color— demands national action.