Congressional Democrats Consider Paid Sick Leave Amid COVID-19 Outbreak
- In light of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, some members in Congress support quickly moving legislation requiring certain employers to offer employees immediate access to paid sick leave.
- Federal proposals to require employees to offer paid sick leave have been discussed for many years, but a March 11, 2020, congressional hearing to discuss legislation introduced earlier this session quickly turned to one of urgency.
- House Democrats have also introduced a new measure, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act
- In additional to federal legislation, several states are contemplating legislative action.
The U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Education and Labor on March 11, 2020, held a hearing on The Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1784). The bill, which was introduced in early 2019, requires employers to provide at least one hour of earned paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 56 hours. Under the proposal, the earned sick leave can be used for an illness of the employee or a family member. Like its identical companion in the Senate (S. 840), H.R. 1784 has the support from a significant number of Democratic members. Other members are concerned about the burden and cost such mandatory rules would impose on certain employers, particularly small businesses. A proposal to mandate paid sick leave was not specifically mentioned by President Donald Trump when he addressed the nation in the evening of March 11, 2020.
Although the hearing was offered to discuss H.R. 1784, the discussion quickly turned to the need to go further in offering employees' paid sick leave and move quickly in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
Later in the day, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) introduced H.R. 6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which, among other provisions, requires all employers to provide an additional 14 days of paid sick leave at the beginning of a public health emergency, including COVID-19. The bill would also ensure that paid sick leave covers when an employee's child's school is closed because of a public health emergency, an employer's office is closed for the same, or the individual or their family members is quarantined. H.R. 6201 also provides for federal reimbursement of small businesses – defined as businesses with fewer than 51 employee – for the cost of the additional 14 days.
Several Democrats have been supportive of legislation that goes further than H.R. 1784. Such proposals include S. 3415/H.R. 6150, which in addition to mandating the accrual of paid sick leave, would immediately provide employees 14 days paid sick leave in the event of a public health emergency, including the current COVID-19 outbreak. The proposal would also permit the use of leave in the event of school closings. The co-sponsor of this bill, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), has found support with several key Democratic senators including Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.). Also on March 11, 2020, Sen. Murray tried to pass the bill by unanimous consent on the Senate floor but her effort was blocked by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)
Federal proposals to mandate paid sick leave are not new, and in the absence of federal law, several states and localities have stepped in to require the accrual of paid sick leave. Moreover, several states, including New York, Colorado and Kentucky, have started to move legislation relating to paid sick leave in specific response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Finally, some employers are voluntarily amending their employee policies in light of the outbreak.
Employers large and small must monitor the legislative landscape and be ready to adapt their policies and procedures quickly. Legislation on paid sick leave, although currently without visible Republican support, would likely take effect immediately.
Holland & Knight will continue to monitor and update COVID-19 developments as necessary.
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