As the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 ravages the country, putting kids out of school and forcing workers to isolate at home, companies are cutting down paid leave benefits, forcing Americans to either take a pay cut or come to work sick.
Paid leave advocates are calling out the growing sick leave crisis — one that could be alleviated by action from Congress granting emergency paid leave protections for workers infected with COVID. But Democrats are frozen on the issue, thanks to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.)’s opposition to any long-term, permanent solutions. In the short term, Republicans remain opposed to any emergency mandates that impact businesses.
The vast majority of congressional Democrats support federal paid leave. Senior Democrats included four weeks of paid family and sick leave in the Build Back Better proposal. However, Manchin is blocking the legislation’s passage, saying he has concerns about its cost and potential fraud. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
So for now, all Democrats can do is decry the companies cutting leave, and hope Manchin changes his mind.
In the last two weeks, some of the country’s biggest employers — Walmart, Amazon, Walgreens and CVS — reduced paid leave benefits after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that those with asymptomatic COVID could end their isolation after just five days (as long as they still wear masks). The CDC still recommends 10 days of isolation for symptomatic cases.
CVS is providing five days of paid leave for vaccinated employees with COVID and Walgreens is doing the same. Both companies previously offered two weeks of paid leave for infected workers.
“We should be putting permanent paid leave at the top of our agenda,” Dawn Huckelbridge, director of advocacy group Paid Leave For All, told HuffPost. “Instead we’re negotiating the quarantine time of a deadly virus and allowing big corporations who are blocking Build Back Better to slash their own paid sick leave.”
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“These are the same companies and trade organizations that have spent tons of money to stop Build Back Better,” said Vicki Shabo, a paid leave expert at the liberal New America think tank. “They also lobbied the CDC to get the guidance changed.”
“It’s completely backwards that so many workers have to make these impossible choices during a COVID-19 surge like the one we’re experiencing—and it makes our fight to pass a national paid sick leave policy all the more urgent,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chair of the Senate’s committee on labor policy, said.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the House’s powerful Appropriations committee, said the same: “In the midst of Omicron, the biggest companies are proving time and again that left to their own devices they will not put worker safety first. These companies, while slashing paid leave and having no universal and fully comprehensive paid family and medical leave, are consistently putting profits above people.”
The White House is reportedly preparing to request additional funds from Congress for COVID therapeutics and increasing vaccine distribution. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and 50 Democratic lawmakers support legislation to send high-quality masks to every American. There’s been additional chatter about including aid for businesses as well. Any supplemental spending package would likely need Republican support.
Paid leave advocates are trying to draw a red line when it comes to these proposals: “If they are talking about business relief and if they are talking about spending money to get masks and antivirals to people, they also need to include paid leave,” Shabo said.
The lack of comprehensive paid leave in the United States has proven to be a major problem during the pandemic. The U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not offer some kind of paid leave coverage to its citizens. Less than half — roughly 42% — of workers in the United States have access to paid medical leave. Low-wage workers are the most likely to not have access to paid leave.
Republicans and Democrats acted to reverse this shortcoming briefly during the early months of the pandemic in 2020; Congress enacted a temporary mandate for certain large employers to offer paid medical leave in case a worker got COVID-19 or had to care for someone with the illness, with tax credits for businesses to offset the costs.
But Republicans stopped supporting that policy almost as soon as it passed under former President Donald Trump and by the end of 2020, workers had to rely on a voluntary tax credit program their employers could opt into — a program that few businesses participated in and has already expired.
Paid leave has proven to be an effective public health measure during the pandemic. It’s also seen as a way to keep women in the workforce, as many have been forced to leave to handle child care, an issue that’s yet again reached prominence as day cares and schools temporarily close due to omicron-related staffing shortages.
“Most people who don’t have paid leave are people that are working in low wage jobs, who have been trying to figure out how to work through this for the whole time,” Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) told HuffPost. “That’s a fundamental inequity.”
Smith continued, making a veiled jab at some of her colleagues.
“It’s really frustrating, especially when you have potentially a minority of senators blocking us from making progress, but all I can say is, this is why you have to organize,” Smith said. “This is why you have to win elections so that you have a working majority able to pass the kinds of policies that American people need.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.