COVID-19: Maryland has a secret weapon: paid sick leave

paid_sick_in_the_house_vote.jpgWith the federal response struggling, Maryland is one of the dozen or so states where state-mandated paid sick leave can provide a faster path to channeling resources to the low-income people hardest-hit.



 

CORONVIRUS HIGHLIGHTS OUR INADEQUATE PUBLIC PROVISION

/By Woody Woodruff<>PM BlogSpace Report/ Few events have more sharply pointed out the inadequacy of our nation’s public provision – at all levels -- than the worldwide explosion of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

With the federal response struggling, Maryland is one of the dozen or so states where state-mandated paid sick leave can provide a faster path to channeling resources to the low-income people hardest-hit by the pandemic’s social and economic tsunami.

While the Trump administration oscillates between supporting the hard-hit travel industry and shoring up the US shale gas firms sandbagged by the Saudi-Russian oil price war, “progressives called on the government to prioritize the interests of working people over the 1%”, as Common Dreams staff writer Eoin Higgins reported.

"The folks who suffer most in a market crash are not the traders on Wall Street," said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). "It is ordinary people losing their jobs, getting their pay cut, or losing their pensions."

"Our focus should be on helping working people," Omar added.

Warning that the economic hit from the outbreak "will come fast" when it arrives and "hit lower-wage workers first and hardest," Josh Biven of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute said it will be crucial for the government to introduce a swift and targeted response.

Biven called on the government to make a plan for "rapid direct payments to individuals" just as was done by President George W. Bush in 2008—when one-time checks of $600 for individual tax-filers and $1,200 for joint tax filers were issued—in order to stem the bleeding from the financial crash that year.

"We could use this model but do even better this time," said Biven, suggesting $1,000 for each individual and $500 per child.

"Besides needing money to tide them over when they can't work," he explained, "low-wage workers could also use protection against being let go by employers when they can't show up to work due to their sickness (or the sickness of family members)."

“Less than two thirds of the country’s lowest-earning workers have access to paid sick time compared to 94 percent of the highest earners, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found workers in the service industry are the least likely to work for employers who grant the benefit,” Ned Oliver writes in the Virginia Mercury.

The COVID-19 pandemic cresting over the US, with the country’s excellent –on the surface – health system nevertheless deeply marred by inequalities of access, is poised to cruelly unmask the way unequal access to healthcare is linked to inequalities in the workplace and society.

Maryland, which resisted a paid sick leave law for many years (not only Republicans but the Assembly’s many business-friendly Democrats) finally passed one in 2018, overriding the predictable veto from Gov. Larry Hogan. It benefits a potential 700,000 Maryland workers and their families.

“Maryland is one of just a dozen states with an earned sick leave policy,” Josh Kurtz wrote today (March 11) in Maryland Matters. “Enacted two years ago after the General Assembly overrode a 2017 veto from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), the state law requires businesses with at least 15 employees to provide up to five days off each year for workers to deal with illnesses.”

This law, progressives should argue, now provides Maryland an essential framework for rapidly building out support for workers affected by the pandemic who cannot telework because their jobs require public contact. The state administration and officials must lobby for federal funds that allow for direct payment to affected workers who are at home because of coronavirus. The state should also override the law’s cheesy exclusion of certain categories of workers (the price of passage in 2017) to directly support them as well.

Why federal funds for Maryland? For states, income taxes will fall as an eventual response to the looming COVID-19 recession – but sales taxes, the lifeblood of state budgets, will fall first and faster.paid_sick_in_the_house_vote.jpg

Kurtz, in Maryland Matters, noted several moves in the current Session to use the paid sick leave structure to help low-income workers who are collateral damage when public health emergency measures and the state’s economy collide.

Emergency legislation introduced Monday night by the General Assembly’s presiding officers and Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), the legislature’s lone public health doctor, to address the coronavirus calls for several measures to safeguard Marylanders’ health and to prevent price gouging by retailers,” Kurtz wrote.

“One provision in the bill would ensure that people under quarantine or isolation don’t lose their jobs. But it doesn’t guarantee pay for the period when they are missing work.” Business leaders nevertheless are dragging their feet on the measure, Kurtz reports.

“Caryn York, executive director of the Baltimore-based Job Opportunities Task Force, said despite the paid sick leave law, ‘…what we won [in 2018] is not enough to hold workers through something like this pandemic.’

“York said she worries that a prolonged quarantine of workers in a variety of industries could ‘leave hordes of individuals with issues of economic instability’.” Kurtz’s article notes.

Incidentally, the Maryland.gov website’s section on COVID-19 has no information on any workplace concerns, let alone acknowledging that the sick leave law offers some temporary protection for many sidelined by the health emergency. A proposed bill in the current Session, opposed by progressives, instead stealthily attempts to roll back protections for some of the most vulnerable workers covered, including seasonal agricultural workers. Kurtz reports it has already been euthanized in a House committee.

In Virginia, meanwhile, the newly Democratic-majority legislature adjourned Sunday night without its Senate taking up a paid sick-leave measure, as Oliver reports in the Virginia Mercury.

Financial journalists, whose big picture includes many who will be less affected by job disruption, nevertheless see fiscal stimulus more useful than the Fed’s rate-cut options (already constrained because Trump has bullied rates down near zero). “Give everybody a quick tax cut,” said a professor and former Fed governor to the NYT’s James B. Stewart. But those who can do their work from home, on a computer screen over high-speed home internet connections, will actually save money on transportation. Many low-income workers have none of those options.

The wait staff, retail clerk or other service workers for whom “social distancing” means staying home because there’s little or no customer demand at work are just out a paycheck, with in many cases no paid leave, sick or otherwise, to tide them over. They are the ones for whom fiscal stimulus must be a lifeline.

And the stimulus will need to come from the federal level, notwithstanding the incompetence of Trump’s sinister circus. As noted above, states’ revenues will be hit first and worst by the effects of the pandemic. Maryland, one of just a dozen states with a paid sick leave policy, should put itself forward as having the framework for putting federal funds to work immediately to sustain families hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Congressional negotiators are reported skeptical of a Trump proposal to suspend payroll taxes,  “…but some lawmakers believe it could ultimately be included in a broader package focused on sick pay, unemployment benefits and food assistance,” The New York Times reports Wednesday morning.


NOTE since publication, the Center for American Progress has chimed in with this: "Lack of paid leave risks public health during the coronavirus"