WASHINGTON (CN) — As COVID-19 spreads from coast to coast, the U.S. remains the only industrialized nation without mandated paid sick days and experts warned lawmakers Wednesday that some people infected with the coronavirus may feel like they have to go to work to make ends meet.
Top health officials are warning Congress that the worst is yet to come, as the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. steadily rises.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has repeatedly urged all Americans who have the option to work from home to help stop the spread of the disease.
“I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now,” Fauci testified to the House Oversight Committee Wednesday. “How much worse we’ll get will depend on our ability to do two things: to contain the influx of people who are infected coming from the outside, and the ability to contain and mitigate within our own country.”
But 32 million Americans do not earn paid sick days and have to choose between clocking in sick in the coming weeks if they start to show signs of the coronovarius or missing a paycheck.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to roll out a legislation package late Wednesday to combat the economic fallout from the outbreak, after the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted into a bear market by dropping 20% from its high for the first time since 2008.
The package is expected to include provisions to protect hourly workers who would be worst hit by forced self-quarantining, shielding them from employer retaliation for taking sick days.
But Democrats are also urging the House to propel the Healthy Families Act to the floor for a vote. Introduced last year, H.R. 1784 mandates paid sick leave for employees who live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford to miss work even when sick.
“Today’s discussion is long overdue,” said Chairwoman Alma Adams, D-N.C., during a House Education and Labor subcommittee hearing Wednesday. “It is simply inexcusable that millions of workers in the world’s wealthiest nation have no way to earn the paid sick days they need to care for themselves and their families.”
But Republicans lambasted the paid sick leave bill as a “Washington-knows-best” mandate that will hurt small businesses, and accused Democrats of capitalizing on a health crisis to push partisan legislation.
Representative Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., said he believes paid sick leave is a “good thing” but not possible for every business. The top Republican on the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, Byrne said Pelosi was right to rapidly develop a response to the coronavirus outbreak in negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“You do it by working together. You don’t do it by having a completely partisan bill,” Byrne said.
Five GOP members of Congress have shut down their congressional offices and opted to self-quarantine after engaging with a confirmed coronavirus patient last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC.
But Congresswoman Ilhan Omar questioned whether the precaution was the right move given it is not an option for most Americans.
“We can’t sequester ourselves while ignoring the countless Americans who work in consumer or food service or those in health care fields actually fighting this epidemic,” said Omar, a Michigan Democrat. “Those workers don’t have the option to telework nor can they afford to go without pay.”
Experts warned the House subcommittee Wednesday that service industry workers are most likely to show up to work sick, risking infecting customers and co-workers, and are less likely to access preventative care or go to the doctor.
“The need for this policy is more urgent than ever,” said Renée Johnson, senior government affairs manager for Main Street Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based small business advocacy group.
“When people work sick it stresses our health care system, hurting all of us,” Johnson warned.
During the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, one-third of infected employees worked despite showing symptoms, spreading the disease to 7 million additional people and increasing the death rate by 1,500.
But GOP members argued that while there is increased urgency surrounding the coronavirus to enact paid sick leave, a federal mandate would place administrative and costs burdens on employers.
“Mandates come with a cost and not all small businesses can afford this mandate, the mandate of paid leave,” said Elizabeth Milito, a Republican witness and senior executive counsel for the National Federation of Independent Business Legal Center in Washington, D.C.
“That’s the fact of the matter,” Milito added. “It’s Economics 101.”
A Senate paid-sick-leave bill failed to pass by unanimous consent Wednesday, brought to the floor by Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash. COVID-19 has killed 31 Americans to date, with 24 deaths in Washington state, the majority being residents in assisted living homes.
“I’m hearing from people in my home state of Washington who are worried about their older relatives who are dying alone, worried about having to miss work and being unable to pay their rent,” Murray said.
Attorney Tanya Goldman, with the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C., told the House subcommittee that lack of paid sick leave disproportionately impacts low-wage and minority workers.
Female employees are more likely to call out of work when their children are under the weather. With paid sick leave, Goldman added, working moms are more likely to keep their children home from school, stopping the spread of contagion in the classroom as well as the workplace. But millions of parents in the U.S. are currently employed in jobs that do not offer paid sick leave.
“Parents will actually report making the difficult decision to send children to childcare or school sick and give Motrin and hope they make it through the day,” Goldman shared.
Just before the subcommittee convened, the World Health Organization categorized the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic.
Acknowledging that the legislation will be too late for those impacted by COVID-19, Sarah Jane Glynn, with the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., pressed the House to “stave off” future pandemics by mandating paid sick leave.
“We need to be thinking toward the future as well,” Glynn said. “We can’t always be trying to play catch up.”