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The Stimulus Plan Might Lose COVID Paid Sick Leave — Here’s Why

Sick leave saved lives and businesses last year, but it almost certainly won't pass this time around. Here's why.


Here’s the bad news: Paid sick leave might not actually be something American workers get from the COVID-19 stimulus package after all.

The good news about the $1,400 stimulus checks and the stimulus package? Democrats, while still gesturing towards bipartisanship, don’t appear willing to negotiate Joe Biden’s $1.9 stimulus plan into oblivion (like they did in the Obama administration).

But because Democrats aren’t willing to abolish the filibuster, they are limited in what they can include in the law, and that means that the paid sick leave provision of the bill, which would have given over 100 million workers access to paid COVID-19 sick leave, may not be passable.

Three congressional aides involved in the negotiations told HuffPost that the paid leave provisions in Biden’s proposal are not likely to make it into the final bill despite their proven effectiveness in slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus, helping working parents keep their jobs, and keeping small companies in business — and corporate support for the programs.

The initial $1.9 trillion proposal included federally mandated emergency paid leave to 106 million Americans and did away with rules that restricted which employers had to offer leave under the (now expired) rules of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed last March. If this paid sick leave did become law, it would mean that 106 million Americans would get 14 weeks of medical leave if needed due to COVID-19. Workers would be also eligible for a benefit of up to $1,400 per week. Now, that likely won’t happen.

Here’s what you need to know about why paid sick leave will likely be dropped from the plan, making it far less effective than it should be.

Why are Democrats considering dropping COVID-19 paid sick leave?

Democrats in the Senate can currently pass legislation one of two ways. They can either go through the normal process of holding votes on legislation, which in this case would almost certainly lead to a GOP filibuster. To invoke cloture and defeat the filibuster, it takes 60 votes, meaning 10 Republican senators would have to vote for that bill. That’s simply not going to happen.

The other option is budget reconciliation, a legislative process that only requires only 50 votes to pass legislation but is limited to certain kinds of fiscal legislation that changes spending, revenues, and the federal debt limit. Senate Democrats believe that mandating that employers pay their workers for time not working is not one of the changes that can be passed by budget reconciliation.

Why is paid leave so crucial during the pandemic?

Workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 could, with paid medical leave that was passed in the bipartisan bill under the Trump administration, stay home and not risk exposing others without worrying about losing valuable income or their job. They could also care for sick family members. Those who wanted to make an appointment to get a vaccine during the workday could do the same under the paid leave law.

Paid family leave, which ended in January but was expected to be re-upped in the new stimulus package, also allowed every parent with kids whose school has to close to stay home with them.

Some workers had access to that paid leave under previous stimulus plans — and the expanded paid leave proposed by Biden probably won’t be able to pass.

What are the Democrats going to do instead?

Under reconciliation, Democrats can definitely add tax credits to the bill. They would give some small companies money back for giving their workers paid time off to deal with COVID-19 issues. However, these credits are lightyears away from real paid leave and won’t give the same number of employees access to the paid leave that they genuinely need.

Could the Democrats pass paid sick leave anyway?

If Democrats decided that they absolutely had to have paid leave, they could eliminate the filibuster and pass the bill with those provisions with a simple majority. That this eminently reasonable, small-d democratic thing to do is referred to as the “nuclear option” is a sign both of how disfunctional the Senate is and how unlikely this reform is to pass.

So what’s next for paid sick leave?

The most likely scenario appears to be this bill passing with the aforementioned tax credits and Democrats left to try again. That might mean eliminating the filibuster, but there is some hope that with more lead time they can figure out some parliamentary maneuvers that will get paid family and sick leave into law through the budget reconciliation process.

Meanwhile, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro are expected to reintroduce the Family Act, a permanent paid leave bill that stalled in the last Congress. It should find a more receptive audience now that both houses of Congress and the presidency are in Democratic hands.

On the one hand, it’s disappointing that the United States hasn’t passed a policy that does so much good (and is so common around the world). On the other, the momentum for paid family leave is clearly building, and the U.S. is probably closer to passing it than it’s ever been.