The word you often hear associated with the current system of paid leave in the United States is patchwork.
Research from employment law firm Seyfarth tracks the issue and lays out just how true that is. Some states, like Massachusetts and Arizona, have statewide sick and personal leave laws. Others, including Georgia to Iowa, have what’s described as anti-local leave laws to stop their cities from passing leave laws on their own.
Other states have laws in place but just at the local level, and everything is made more complicated by the a wave of new provisions added in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The researchers counted 11 different kinds of paid leave setups among states in 2020.
“I think the best way to describe it is that it's messy,” said Joshua Seidman, one of the Seyfarth report’s authors.
The question is whether there is sufficient momentum in Washington to make big changes that could provide more comprehensive benefits and simplify the system.
“The paid leave part of it is something that's been percolating for decades now,” Kathleen Romig, senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told Yahoo Finance in a recent interview. “I think this is something that is on the list of both Republicans and Democrats.”
During President Trump’s term, his daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump often focused on paid leave. She helped get a bill passed to extend leave provisions to federal workers and told Yahoo Finance in an interview last year that "it's something I'm personally incredibly passionate about, paid family leave, and the importance that when people are sick, they're taking care of themselves."
In 2020, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, a bill that expanded sick leave provisions, but many employers were exempt from the enhanced leave protections, which ended up expiring at the end of last year.
President Biden wants to bring them back in a bigger way. The outlines of his proposal would reinstate federal emergency paid leave provisions and also eliminate the exemptions. Under this plan, paid leave protections would be extended to companies of all sizes and the government would reimburse employers with fewer than 500 employees through a refundable tax credit through September 2021.
The Biden team says it would cover an additional 106 million Americans if it becomes law.
“Emergency paid leave reduces the spread of COVID, because it allows people to stay home when they are sick,” Biden recently said.
Of course, the exact details of any final bill remain to be seen, but Seidman predicts there could be some business community support – depending on what new costs are imposed.
“Certainly from the business side, there is a preference for pre-emption,” he said, referring to the potential for federal laws to override state and local provisions.
Seidman, who works to help companies comply with paid leave laws, said he sees employers trying to navigate dozens of different obligations, depending on where they operate. It “has led to a lot of challenges,” he said.
‘It is a boon to the economy to have paid sick days’
Advocates in Washington also argue that more generous paid sick leave can help combat the coronavirus and help the economy overall.
A recent article from researchers at the Swiss Economic Institute and Cornell University found “statistically significant” fewer coronavirus cases when workers were given the option to take up to two weeks of paid sick leave to either quarantine or recover from the virus.
“It's clear that it is a boon to the economy to have paid sick days,” said Romig, noting that productivity rises overall if people are able to step aside and recover faster from an illness. Data shows a record number of workers called out sick in 2020, which slowed the economic recovery during multiple virus spikes.
Multiple studies have shown how much the U.S. lags behind other countries on this issue. According to one estimate, 145 countries mandate some level of paid leave at the federal level; the United States does not.
Some paid leave supporters want to push the administration further, toward a permanent federal paid leave program. “There is just an increasing conviction that we need to have a permanent paid leave program in this country for people when they're having a baby or adopting a child, for people when they're suffering a serious illness or injury,” Romig said.
A range of prominent political figures from Valerie Jarrett to Neera Tanden to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) have also called for permanent provisions. During the campaign, Biden expressed support for an effort to make federal paid sick leave permanent.
Polling has shown Americans are broadly supportive of more measures but “sharply divided over whether the government should require employers to provide this benefit or let employers decide for themselves.”
In the past Republicans have split over paid leave provisions (such as a 2015 vote on expanding paid leave provisions.) Some Republicans, like former President Trump, have more recently voiced support for expanded paid leave programs and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed last year with broad bipartisan support.
In the meantime, Seidman notes that his work is getting ever more complex as more states and cities add and extend their coronavirus-specific rules. “They're chugging right along because the pandemic is still around," he said.
Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.