One of the major issues being discussed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic is whether or not people have adequate paid sick leave. The concern is that workers who do not have paid sick leave would continue working if they contracted the virus and potentially infect others.

The spread of the novel coronavirus has inspired calls for more laws that require employers to pay workers for time off during an illness. While many employers offer the benefit voluntarily, about a quarter of U.S. workers do not have access to paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Supporters say sick people, especially those with the coronavirus, shouldn’t have to lose a day’s pay to recover. Let's take a closer look.

What is paid sick leave?

Paid sick leave is a benefit that allows employees to take time off and still get paid their normal salary when health issues affect their ability to work.

Companies offer it to minimize the financial consequences of becoming ill and missing work. It also encourages contagious workers to stay home instead of infecting co-workers.

This benefit may come in the form of paid sick days off or paid sick time off.

How does paid sick leave work?

Employees accrue sick days based on the employer’s policies. Some companies offer a maximum number of paid sick days off during a calendar year. Others offer an hour of paid sick time for every set number of hours worked.

Some employers may give more sick days per year based on how long you have worked there. You may be able to carry over a certain number of unused sick days each year, while some companies utilize a "use-it-or-lose-it" model.

Many employers have moved to a paid time off model that gives employees a set number of paid days off per year they can use for any reason, including illness.

Typically employers do not offer paid sick leave to independent contractors and freelancers. State laws also do not require companies to extend this benefit to non-employees. While California’s law covers part-time and temporary workers, it does not require employers to provide paid sick leave to independent contractors paid on a 1099 basis.

Amidst uncertain times, this highlights one major downside of life in the gig economy.

Paid sick leave laws by state

There is currently no federal law requiring employers to provide paid sick leave to their employees.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 12 states and the District of Columbia require paid sick leave. Connecticut led the way with the first state in 2011, followed by California three years later.

There are also a number of cities with local paid sick time ordinances. For example, employees working in San Francisco can accrue up to 72 hours of paid sick leave per year with no cap on how much they can use.

States that have laws requiring at least some employers to provide paid sick leave include:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • District of Columbia
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington

In addition to these states, Maine’s legislature approved a paid sick leave law in 2019 that will take effect on January 1, 2021.

In several states, all public and private employers must provide paid sick leave. Other states exempt small employers based on the number of employees. Connecticut, Michigan, and Nevada only require paid leave for employers with 50 or more workers. The number is 11 in Massachusetts, 15 in Maryland, and 18 in Rhode Island.

State laws set a minimum number of paid sick days based on hours worked. For example, laws require that workers get one hour of sick leave for every 30, 35 or 40 hours worked.

States also cap the maximum number of paid sick days employers must offer. The cap in most states is 40 hours or five days a year. California has a six-day cap. The District of Columbia varies its cap based on the number of employees, ranging from three to seven days annually.

To address the need for paid sick time during the coronavirus outbreak, the House passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act earlier this month. On March 18, it was passed by the Senate and signed by President Trump. This law will grant two weeks of paid sick leave up to $511 a day to workers infected with the virus.

While certainly a noble act and a step in the right direction, this will not be the end of mandates on providing paid sick leave. The debate will continue in Washington, D.C., on providing the benefit to more workers, if not all workers.

What happens when paid sick leave runs out?

At this point, the need for paid sick leave simply cannot be denied. Still, employers cannot afford for their employees to stay on paid sick leave forever. So what happens when your paid sick leave runs out?

For those who have an emergency fund stashed away, now would be the time to tap into this financial safety net. But not everyone does. And for those who do, this too will soon run out.

Then there's long term disability insurance, perhaps the most reliable option. Putting a long term disability plan in place is a smart, cost-effective way to protect your income. It will replace a percentage of your monthly income if COVID-19 ends up keeping you out of work for several months.

Even in uncertain times like these, one thing is abundantly clear: The more financial runway infected individuals have to recover now, the better off everyone will be in the long run.


Jack Wolstenholm is the head of content at Breeze.

The information and content provided herein is for educational purposes only, and should not be considered legal, tax, investment, or financial advice, recommendation, or endorsement. Breeze does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, reliability or usefulness of any testimonials, opinions, advice, product or service offers, or other information provided here by third parties. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

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