Over 60% of low-wage workers still don’t have access to paid sick days on the job
The pandemic highlighted vast inequalities in the United States, especially in the U.S. labor market. Striking disparities were magnified in who could work from home and who had to go into work in person, who was able to keep their job and who suffered from lost work hours or employment altogether, who had health insurance to seek care when they needed it and who didn’t, and who had the ability to take paid sick days to stay home when sick, get vaccinated, or take care of loved ones and who did not. Yesterday, the latest data on employer benefits was released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Stark inequalities persist in access to workplace benefits. One that hits hard is the inability of over 60% of the lowest-wage workers in the U.S. to be able to earn paid sick days to care for themselves or family members.
Figure A below shows access to paid sick days is vastly unequal: Workers at the bottom are disproportionately denied this important security. The highest-wage workers (top 10%) are two and a half times as likely to have access to paid sick leave as the lowest-paid workers (bottom 10%). Whereas 96% of the highest-wage workers had access to paid sick days, only 38% of the lowest-paid workers are able to earn paid sick days.
High-wage workers have paid sick days; most low-wage workers do not: Share of private-sector workers with access to paid sick days, by wage group, 2022
|Category||Share of workers who have access to paid sick days|
Workers’ ability to earn paid sick days varies greatly across the country. In lieu of federal action, many states have passed legislation to guarantee paid sick days, but many workers have been left behind. Figure B shows vast differences across Census divisions in workers’ ability to use paid sick time to take care of themselves or their family members. The share with access to paid sick days ranges from only 67% in the East South Central states (Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee) up to 94% in the Pacific states (California, Oregon, and Washington). Notably, many state governments in the East South Central and West South Central Census divisions have passed preemption laws prohibiting local municipalities from passing paid leave and sick day policies.
Workers face stark differences in access to paid sick days, depending on where they live: Share of private-sector workers with access to paid sick days, by geographical area, 2022
|Geographic Area||Share of workers who have access to paid sick days|
|East South Central||67%|
|West South Central||68%|
|East North Central||72%|
|West North Central||72%|
Note: Census divisions are grouped by color according to the Census regions: Northeast, South, Midwest, and West, respectively.
There is also huge variation in access to paid sick days across the private sector. Full-time workers are much more likely to have paid sick days than part-time workers (86% vs. 51%). Unionized workers have greater access to paid sick days than nonunion workers (87% vs. 76%). At 96% access, workers in management, business, and financial occupations have higher rates than any other occupation category. Services occupations have the least at 62%.
Across industrial sectors, paid sick leave also varies greatly, as shown in Figure C. Finance and insurance has the highest rate of coverage at 98%, closely followed by utilities (95%); professional, scientific, and technical (94%); and information (93%). Only about half of private-sector workers in leisure and hospitality (53%) have access to paid sick days, leaving the other half—often with public-facing jobs—without the ability to stay home to take care of themselves or their families when sick.
Workers face stark differences in access to paid sick days, depending on what sector they work in: Share of private-sector workers with access to paid sick days, by sector, 2022
|Sector||Share of workers who with paid sick leave|
|Finance and insurance||98%|
|Professional, scientific, and technical services||94%|
|Real estate and rental and leasing||86%|
|Health care and social assistance||86%|
|Transportation and warehousing||84%|
|Other services (except public administration)||69%|
|Admin, support, waste mgmt., remediation svcs.||65%|
|Leisure and hospitality||53%|
These averages also mask important differences within various jobs and the barriers some workers face when trying to access paid leave options, such as harsh policies on attendance, scheduling, and forced overtime. For instance, in a recent labor dispute, we’ve seen the barriers blocking many rail workers from taking paid (or even unpaid) time off for illness or medical appointments without penalty. Adequate paid sick leave policy means workers can take it when they need it.
Fortunately, there is a relatively simple way to address some of these inequities: The federal government can pass legislation to mandate paid sick leave for all workers. Paid sick leave not only helps reduce transmission of disease, it also provides economic security for workers who might otherwise lose income if they have to take time off from work.
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