Majority of America’s low-income workers who don’t take sick leave can’t afford to, report finds

Workers fear losing jobs or pressure to return to work if they get sick or care for family member, study finds

Alex Woodward
New York
Thursday 10 June 2021 18:07 BST
Related video: Biden pitches childcare, education and tax plan in Virginia on 4 May
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A majority of American service workers who did not take time away from work for a major life event – including illness, caring for another person, or childbirth – could not afford to do so, according to an analysis of more than 8,500 responses from workers across the US.

Of the workers surveyed, half did not take any leave from their job, according to the report published by Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy and University of California San Francisco with data from The Shift Project. The report was first reported by Axios.

Three-quarters of those workers – roughly 71 per cent – did not take any leave or did not take as much as they needed because they could not afford to.

In a subset of an additional 900 workers polled in Washington state, half said they would need at least 80 per cent of their pay, and four in 10 workers said they would need 100 per cent of their pay, to afford to leave work.

One-third of workers feared losing their jobs if they did take leave, and 25 per cent felt pressure to return to work, the report found.

Workers in the survey earn a median hourly wage of $12.75, with 66 per cent reporting household annual incomes of less than $50,000.

The study included workers from 85 of the largest companies across food service, retail and delivery industries, including Target, Starbucks and Walmart, the world’s largest retailer.

The report’s findings – collected during the coronavirus pandemic in fall 2020 – underscore the disparities in family and medical leave in the US, with voluntary employer leave policies largely offered to white collar and salaried workers.

A majority of low-wage workers are often “unpaid and unprotected in the event they need time away from work,” with many service workers ineligible for job-protected leave under the Family Medical Leave Act or not provided with employer-supported paid leave programmes, according to the report.

That lack of paid leave “is likely to have been felt especially acutely during the Covid-19 pandemic, because of the surge in health and caregiving needs during this period,” the report found.

“Workers in the service sector – many employed in essential sectors such as grocery, pharmacy, and delivery – found themselves particularly exposed and unprotected while working through the pandemic,” according to the report.

The report also shed light on demographic disparities among low-income workers, with 37 per cent of Black workers taking leave, compared to 52 per cent of white workers and 48 per cent of Hispanic workers.

“As our data suggest, being able to afford leave goes hand in hand with job protection so workers do not fear retaliation,” the report said.

Six states and Washington DC have active paid leave programmes.

President Joe Biden’s proposed American Families Plan would create a national paid leave programme that provides up to 12 weeks of guaranteed paid family and sick leave for US workers.

His pitch is part of his proposed multi-trillion dollar domestic agenda, including federal support for childcare, universal prekindergarten and community college, and sweeping infrastructure improvements.

“No one should have to choose between a job and a paycheck or taking care of themselves, a parent, a spouse, or a child that’s ill,” the president said in remarks from Virginia last month.

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