Coronavirus and Paid Leave: Can Massachusetts Workers Afford to Stay Home Sick?

Massachusetts is one of 13 states that require paid sick days, but there are coverage gaps 

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"Don’t come to work if you’re not feeling well." It’s a message we’ve heard repeated often by state leaders and public health experts as the coronavirus pandemic has spread.  

That might not be a problem if your company provides generous sick leave benefits.  

But what if you’re one of the estimated 30 million U.S. workers who don’t get a paycheck if you stay home to get healthy?   

It’s a major reason why paid sick leave is suddenly a major discussion point related to COVID-19. Proponents says the public health threat illustrates why a federal law should be in place to keep coronavirus from spreading.  

“We really need to think about our response right now and what we can do to create opportunities for low-income workers to stay home and take care of themselves or for loved ones,” said Carlene Pavlos, executive director at the Massachusetts Public Health Association.  

There is no cure for the coronavirus, but that has not stopped multiple companies from claiming that their products treat the disease.

Inside Blacker’s Bakeshop in Newton, owner Rebecca Blacker said everyone—from employees to customers—is on heightened alert.  

“How can we not think about it?” Blacker remarked. “If customers don’t see us change our gloves, they want to see us do it again.” 

With anxiety about coronavirus increasing each day, the boss makes sure her employees get an important message.  

“If you don’t feel well, you should not come in regardless. It’s absolutely a safety precaution,” Blacker told me. 

At a small food service business with just 13 employees — all part-time — you might assume the workers don’t make any money when they stay home sick.  

But that’s not the case. Even without a full benefits package that provides things like health insurance or vacation days, the bakeshop can still offer paid sick days.  

“We want our employees to know they are covered and taken care of,” Blacker told me. “That extra net is really important.” 

That’s because even without the absence of a federal law, Massachusetts is one of 13 states that require companies to provide paid sick time. The list includes several other New England states like Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island and Vermont.  

In Massachusetts, businesses with 11 or more employees have to provide 40 hours of paid sick time each year. Employees accrue an hour of sick time for every 30 hours on the clock.  

This week, Attorney General Maura Healey highlighted workers’ rights under the law. Her office told NBC10 Boston that its Fair Labor Division hotline received about 20 calls from workers who said they were unable to take paid sick time related to coronavirus.  

While the law offers some protections, it still has gaps. It does not include very small businesses with fewer than 10 employees or independent contractors.  

Hair stylist Mindy Cooper described how her profession requires plenty of close human contact, a job that can’t be accomplished from a computer at home.  

“We are right in people’s faces,” Cooper told me. “We are breathing on them and they are breathing on us.” 

Which is why the owner of Free Style Hair Studio in Watertown worries about what would happen if she got sick or had to self-quarantine for 14 days.  

“It would be a huge impact on me,” she said. “I wouldn’t get paid. I would probably lose a few thousand dollars, which is not easy for me to make up.” 

Massachusetts recently passed a Paid Family Medical Leave law that could potentially be used in a situation like this. However, it doesn’t take effect until January 2021. 

We asked Gov. Charlie Baker about the possibility of pushing up the date so people could access the benefits during the current pandemic.  

“I think it would be almost impossible for the state or for the employer community to actually implement the benefit early people because people are working on timelines that are still nine months away,” he responded.  

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