Issue Brief
Learning Our Lesson: COVID-19 Emergency Paid Sick Leave Showed the Value of a Robust, Permanent Paid Leave Policy

June 2023
Paid Sick Days


By Jessica Mason

The end of the federal public health emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic on May 11, 2023 closes out an unprecedented period of innovation and action to advance public health and economic security in the United States – including the nation’s first-ever national paid sick days and paid family leave policies. The experiments of the past three years offer policymakers a unique opportunity to learn from what worked so that we can be ready for the future, from the everyday demands of work, health and caregiving to the unpredictable needs of the next pandemic.

This brief reviews the research and evidence about workers’ and employers’ need for and use of emergency sick and family leave, implementation and enforcement, and the costs and benefits of the program. It also shares qualitative findings from 20 interviews with workers who met FFCRA eligibility criteria, to better understand experiences of workers who had expanded access to paid leave and those who had unmet needs for leave in 2020.

The program was effective at protecting public health, and reduced coronavirus cases by an estimated 15,000 cases per day in states that had previously not had paid sick leave laws.Pichler, S., Wen, K., & Ziebarth, N. R. (2020, October). COVID-19 Emergency Sick Leave Has Helped Flatten The Curve In The United States. Health Affairs, online first. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2020.00863 This benefit would have been even greater if the program had not severely restricted eligibility – less than half of workers were covered – and a more substantial public education campaign had ensured workers and employers knew about the program.

“Taking a paid leave was for my family, thank God I was there for them.”
– “Amina”

The program also supported workers’ health needs as the pandemic extended through 2020. By June of that year, an estimated one million eligible workers per month were still able to take paid sick days and family leave (primarily for illness or quarantine) thanks to the emergency program.Byker, T., Patel, E., & Smith, K. (2022, November 3). Families First Coronavirus Response Act: Effect on Paid Leave Taking During the Early Pandemic. Washington Center for Equitable Growth working paper. Retrieved 7 April 2023, from Workers also benefited from wage replacement and the ability to keep their jobs, and workers who took leave reported greater peace of mind. But their use of paid family leave for child care purposes was limited.

In the absence of a pre-existing earned sick time mandate to clarify employer obligations or a federal paid leave agency to administer a universal paid leave program, employers were tasked with implementing these new laws on their own. Less than 7 percent of employers claimed the tax credit that was offered to them to offset the cost of providing leave, and uptake was especially low among small employers.Goodman, L. (2021, November). Take-up of Payroll Tax-Based Subsidies During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Working Paper 121. Office of Tax Analysis. Retrieved 10 April 2023 from U.S. Department of the Treasury website:

“I had to take care of my grandfather. So you go on leave for only like two days, three days. And that persisted. Then I got COVID and you see, the hours you’re working can’t help them, the employer, no more. So he just told me that I needed to take the break so they can find someone better. Someone who can work. That’s basically it. I lost my job.”
– “Tim”

In addition, even though tax credits continued to be available for employers who opted to provide emergency leave after the mandatory program ended, there is no evidence that tax credits without a mandate incentivized employers to maintain or increase paid leave on a permanent basis. However, evidence from both workers and employers in states with already-existing paid leave programs – which manage applications for leave and payment of benefits – indicates that such programs worked well.

The brief concludes that in the future, emergency paid sick days laws would be most effective if they are inclusive of all working people and layered on top of an existing permanent paid sick days policy and a publicly-administered paid family and medical leave program. It also offers recommendations for implementation and enforcement to ensure these programs work well for workers and small employers.

Read the full brief: Learning Our Lesson: COVID-19 Emergency Paid Sick Leave Showed the Value of a Robust, Permanent Paid Leave Policy

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Special thanks to Kendyll Cole, Elisa Davila, Michelle Feit, Katherine Gallagher Robbins, Sharita Gruberg, Vasu Reddy and Gail Zuagar for their contributions to this brief.

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