As Congress squabbles over spending legislation, the federal government’s only emergency paid leave program is set to expire — and corporate Democrats’ move to kill President Biden’s agenda will remove an incentive for many employers to provide paid sick leave to their workers in the middle of a pandemic.
The threadbare paid leave tax credits allowed small- and medium-sized businesses to offset the cost of providing up to eighty hours of paid leave to their employees. When it terminates on September 30, it will be the latest COVID response initiative to expire, including pandemic unemployment assistance and the federal eviction moratorium. Without the tax credit program, employers lose an incentive to provide paid leave to sick workers, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the country.
While a federal paid leave program is currently included in the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package being debated in Congress, the fate of the reconciliation bill and the various social measures it aims to implement are still very much uncertain. What is certain, however, is that the lack of paid leave is hindering vaccination efforts nationally at a time when the country is still seeing tens of thousands of new COVID cases per day, driven largely by the Delta variant.
Meanwhile, Americans are still waiting for a new rule Biden ordered from the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration earlier this month to mandate paid time off so workers can get vaccinated. It is unclear if the rule will apply only to vaccine-related time off, or would also cover time off for infection.
Justin Feldman, a social epidemiologist and fellow at Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, worries that without the tax credit program, thousands of employers could end their paid sick leave programs — though he cautions that data about the program’s reach is unavailable.
“We are in the middle of a raging pandemic that is killing 15,000 Americans every week,” says Feldman. “Removing paid sick days means more workers will spread COVID to their colleagues, more people will be hospitalized, and more will die.”
In March 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, Donald Trump signed a COVID relief bill that mandated up to eighty hours of paid leave for many workers and contained a refundable tax credit for impacted employers. However, the paid leave expired on December 31, 2020, and it was not included in Trump’s second relief package after Mitch McConnell objected to its inclusion.
When Joe Biden took office, he did not reinstate the mandate. Instead, in April, his administration announced a paid leave tax credit under the American Rescue Plan (ARP) for small- and medium-sized businesses. Employers with fewer than five hundred employees would be able to draw on a tax credit to “offset the cost” for providing up to eighty hours of paid leave.
From the outset, the paid leave tax credit appeared to be a poor replacement for the mandate. Employers had to opt in to the tax credit program, leaving workers at their mercy — an arrangement that likely contributed to Americans not getting vaccinated.
The White House has not publicly touted the impact of the tax credit, and so far little information has been released on how many employers have taken advantage of the program. As the Daily Poster previously reported, polls over the summer indicated the program’s coverage was limited.
In June, a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll found that two out of every ten Americans who remain unvaccinated would be more likely to get the jab if they had paid leave to do so. The following month, according to an Axios-Ipsos poll, a quarter of all unvaccinated Americans said paid sick leave would encourage them to get a vaccine.
Congressional Democrats are working on another way to provide sick leave, one that may or may not come to fruition. A week after Biden announced the paid sick leave tax credit, the administration announced its American Families Plan, which contained a plan for a federal program providing American workers with twelve weeks of paid leave, phased in over ten years.
That plan was folded into the Build Back Better Act, the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill currently making its way through Congress. The House approved the twelve weeks of paid leave in its version of the bill, but whether or not the plan will be part of the final package — and whether a final package will even be passed — remains to be seen, due to conservative Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin presenting potential roadblocks.