Workers condemn coronavirus relief bill’s loophole for big companies

As the coronavirus outbreak highlights the need for social distancing, policymakers and public health experts want to make sure that sick workers can stay home without fear of going broke.

To that end, the Senate is set to take up on Monday a coronavirus relief bill, passed by the House and backed by President Donald Trump, that could allay the fears of workers and the public alike, requiring businesses to provide employees with paid sick and medical leave.

But the law does not apply to companies with 500 or more employees, meaning about 59 million people who work for such businesses will not receive its protections.

Workers at major corporations and top union officials said they support many of the emergency relief measures in the bill but condemned what they consider a carve-out for big corporations with outsize influence in Washington D.C — one that undermines a measure intended not only to protect employees but the public endangered by sick people forced to go to work.

To be sure, many large companies already provide workers with paid sick days, and a host of major corporations like Walmart (WMT) and McDonald’s (MCD) have recently announced additional paid leave for workers affected by the outbreak. 

While the paid sick leave in these voluntary benefit packages from large companies roughly matches that mandated for smaller companies by the House bill, many of the voluntary packages fall short of guaranteeing paid family and medical leave for workers affected by the coronavirus, which the House bill also includes.

In addition, the benefits made available by large companies are revocable at any time, while the government-mandated benefits provided by smaller companies — if passed by the Senate and signed into law — will be in place for the next year. The large companies excluded from the bill, however, will have to pay for their own benefits, whereas a government tax credit will cover the benefits provided by smaller companies.

“The virus doesn’t distinguish — it doesn’t ask who you work for and neither should we,” says Dania Rajendra, the executive director of an anti-Amazon coalition group called Athena, who sharply criticized the exemption for large companies.

The coronavirus relief bill, passed by a bipartisan 363-40 vote in the House on Saturday, requires some companies to provide workers with two weeks of paid sick leave, as well as three months of paid family and medical leave totaling at least two-thirds of their pay. The benefits of the measure are limited to workers who are infected with the virus or are quarantined, as well as those either with a sick family member or forced to stay home due to school closure.

In addition to its exemption for large companies, the bill allows the Labor Department to exclude workers at any company with 50 or fewer employees from some of the provisions. In all, about 80% of American workers could lose out on the benefits, The New York Times Editorial Board recently pointed out. The bill includes a tax credit to cover the cost of the additional paid leave.

“If you are sick, stay home,” Vice President Mike Pence said on Saturday about the Trump administration’s support legislation. “You’re not going to miss a pay check.” At a news conference on Sunday, Pence did not respond directly to a question about the exclusion of workers at large companies.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the media about a coronavirus economic aid package on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

At a Walmart store in northwest Wisconsin, Brittney Legowski has helped hundreds of panicked shoppers find food and cleaning supplies each day, she says, but she’s afraid that one of them will give her the coronavirus. 

Legowski, 21, a part-time worker who lives in Menomonie, Wisc., suffers from a chronic sinus infection and recovered from the flu only two weeks ago, using up nearly all of her accrued sick leave, she says. 

“With both of these things working against me, it makes me worried,” says Legowski, who attends college full-time at nearby University of Wisconsin—Stout. “It doesn’t really feel like there’s anything I can do now, or if I were to get sick.”  

“It’s extremely frustrating knowing that Walmart could be a part of this bill,” adds Legowski, who is among the 1.5 million people nationwide who work for the country’s largest employer. “It doesn’t seem like they [Walmart] care about their workers.”

Walmart, which did not respond to a request for comment, announced last Tuesday that it would provide up to two weeks of pay for employees required to quarantine by the government or the company, or for those diagnosed with the coronavirus — and the company made up to 26 weeks of payment available for employees diagnosed with coronavirus who cannot return to work after 14 days. A worker at a Walmart store in Kentucky was diagnosed with coronavirus but is improving under medical care.

“We want any associate who is not feeling well to stay home,” the company said in a statement released upon the announcement of the paid sick leave.

Similar policies were put in place in recent days by McDonald’s, Amazon, Chipotle, and other large companies. On average, workers with one year of experience at companies with 500 or more employees receive eight sick days per year, according to a March 2019 report from Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Eighty nine percent of workers at companies with more than 500 employees receive paid sick leave, according to a September 2019 report from the BLS.

Some large companies that did not provide paid sick leave prior to the outbreak have yet to bolster their policies in light of it, including food chains like Burger King, Wendy’s, and Panera. Only 45% of workers in the food service industry receive paid sick leave, according to BLS data from March 2019.

In general, workers must be diagnosed with coronavirus or be officially quarantined in order to secure paid sick leave under the potential government-mandated plans or voluntary ones from large corporations, but it has so far proven difficult for Americans to get tested for the illness.

Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House who fought to secure the coronavirus relief bill’s passage, on Saturday appeared to acknowledge the exemption for big companies. “Large employers and corporations must step up to the plate and offer paid sick leave and paid family & medical leave to their workers,” she tweeted.

The country’s most powerful labor organizations sharply criticized the exemption, blaming Trump and lawmakers for succumbing to the influence of wealthy corporations.

“In the face of this unprecedented coronavirus threat, President Trump and his allies are playing politics with our lives,” says Tim Schlittner, the communications director at AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the U.S. with about 12.5 million members. “Every worker should have paid sick leave — no questions asked.”

Mary Kay Henry, the president of the 2-million member Service Employees International Union, backed the legislation but also criticized the exemption for big companies.

“Large corporations like @McDonalds are using their power and influence to get loopholes written into COVID-19 response so they don’t have to offer paid sick leave,” she tweeted on Saturday.

As of Monday afternoon, the U.S. had 3,813 confirmed cases of coronavirus with 70 days, according to Johns Hopkins. The number of recorded deaths worldwide from the outbreak surpassed 6,500 on Monday.

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