As the number of COVID-19 cases in Michigan continues to rise, thousands of Michiganders are being sent home from their jobs in an attempt to stop the spread. And with all K-12 schools shutting down Monday, many parents have no choice but to stay home with their children.
Roughly 1.7 million Michiganders, or 55% of the workforce, don’t have access to paid sick leave at their jobs — which means they may not be getting paychecks. This disproportionately hurts lower-wage workers, many of whom also lack health insurance, per the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).
A statewide coronavirus hotline will be open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1-888-535-6136. Information can be found on the DHHS website or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention website.
That can have a snowball effect on workers’ personal finances — impacting their ability to pay their mortgage or rent, utility bills, health care costs, student loans and more.
Aimee Welch, 40, works an average of 30 to 36 hours a week at a McDonald’s in Lapeer.
“If I take any time off, I don’t get paid for it,” she says. So even as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases grows in Michigan, she’s still coming in for her shift to make sure she can pay her bills.
“I do worry I could get it from people who come through the drive-through who don’t even know they’re carrying it,” Welch says. “But I’ve got an 8-year-old child at home. I couldn’t take time off even if I wanted to.”
The lack of paid sick leave is just one part of the tattered safety net that fails millions of people in Michigan and across the country every day — but it’s particularly acute during a pandemic like COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus.
“We’ve heard the refrain over and over in the past week: ‘Stay home if you’re sick!’ We know social distancing is one of the best ways to stop the spread of illness,” said Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Lansing-based Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) advocating for low-income people.
“But 1.5 million people in this state don’t have paid sick days. Telling these workers to ‘just stay home’ means telling them to go without pay — a choice many working families simply can’t make if they need to keep food on the table and keep the lights on. They risk being infected and infecting others because staying home is not a viable option.”
Workers who lack access to paid sick leave are three times less likely to receive medical care, while their family members are 1.6 times less likely to receive care, per the Center for American Progress (CAP). For those who come down with coronavirus — and are fighting for their health and even their lives, as well as facing soaring health care expenses — this can be particularly devastating. And, in turn, this causes big shifts in the economy, with many experts worrying about a pandemic-inspired recession.
“Meaningful paid sick leave legislation is incredibly important for low-wage workers and their families and important to reduce the spread of illness,” EPI Senior Economist Elise Gould wrote in an analysis published by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank in February.
But it didn’t have to be this way.
In 2018, there was a push to get a comprehensive paid time off question on Michigan’s November ballot, along with another measure to up the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2022, including tipped workers. Under the paid sick time ballot proposal spearheaded by the group MI Time to Care, workers could earn 72 hours of paid time per year and this applied to businesses with six or more employees.
More than 370,000 signatures apiece were gathered in support of the measures, exceeding the 252,523 signatures required. Conservative groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce strongly opposed them.
So in September, the GOP-controlled Legislature decided to adopt both the sick leave and minimum wage proposals, which blocked them from appearing on the ballot. While some thought it was a victory for the progressive policies, cynics saw what was coming next.
After the 2018 election — in which Democrats swept all top statewide offices — Republicans quickly introduced and passed legislation rolling back the minimum wage and sick time measures they just enacted. Under the new proposal, workers only received 40 hours and businesses employing 50 or fewer people are exempt. GOP then-Gov. Rick Snyder quickly signed the bills in December 2018 before being term-limited from office.
“I looked at what the potential impacts and benefits of the changes would be and decided that signing these bills was the appropriate action,” the former Gateway CEO said at the time.
There was more disappointing news for progressive activists in December 2019, when the Michigan Supreme Court declined to issue a ruling on the GOP’s “adopt and amend” procedure over the ballot questions (which some opponents renamed “undo and screw.”) Justices said it was too late to issue a decision.
As COVID-19 tears across Asia, Europe and now the United States, paid sick leave has emerged as a big issue again, with the U.S. House passing a watered-down measure on Friday in an emergency coronavirus stimulus package and state Rep. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy) leading on a comprehensive proposal for Michigan.
But the wounds of 2018 are still fresh and the anger of activists like Danielle Atkinson is palpable. In a scathing Detroit Free Press op-ed last week, “Michigan workers got screwed out of sick time by Snyder, GOP. Now coronavirus is here,” she called on the Legislature to reverse course right away, noting Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would sign robust sick leave legislation.
“In the face of a dangerous pandemic sweeping the globe, allowing workers who are sick to stay and home and still get a paycheck would be smart public health policy,” writes Atkinson, founder and executive director of Mothering Justice that advocates for mothers and families. “That will benefit not just employees, but the millions of Michiganders who risk contracting COVID-19 from a hardworking man or woman who had no choice but to come to work sick.”
Atkinson acknowledges that both state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) both voted to gut paid sick leave in Lame Duck, but said it’s not too late to do the right thing.
“Yes, I am politicizing this,” she writes. “I am weaponizing the virus, because the leadership of one political party weaponized the legislative process against working men and women. Because it deserves to be weaponized and used against the politicians, many of whom are still in office, who put Michigan at a greater risk than necessary.”
It’s not just Michigan
Workers across the country are reeling from the impact of COVID-19.
More than 32 million — or more than 1 in 4 — private sector workers in America lack access to paid sick leave, according to CAP, a Washington, D.C.-based progressive policy institute.
This hurts low-income, service sector, Latino and Native American/Alaskan Native workers the most. CAP research shows 70% of private sector workers earning $10.79 or less per hour lack access to paid sick leave. Just 10% of private sector workers earning $30.61 or more per hour have access to paid sick leave.
And EPI research shows significant geographic differences. Private sector workers in the South and Midwest are most likely to lack access to paid sick leave.
“Unfortunately, preparing for the ‘significant disruption’ [under COVID-19] will be economically unimaginable for one group of Americans — the millions of people in the United States who do not have access to paid sick days or have health insurance with a regular health care provider,” wrote Gould, EPI’s senior economist.
One big factor in ensuring workers have paid tick time: organized labor. Unionized workers are more likely to have access to paid sick days and health insurance on the job than non-union workers, per EPI. Research shows that 86% of unionized workers can take paid sick days to care for themselves or family members, while only 72% of nonunion workers can.
Belonging to a union also makes a big difference for millions during the COVID-19 pandemic, as 94% of union workers have health insurance, EPI reports. Only two-thirds of non-union workers do.
“Having health insurance means workers are more able to seek and afford the care they need,” Gould writes. “We know in that the United States, millions of people delay getting medical treatment because of the costs. Without health insurance, many do not have a regular source of care and simply won’t go to the doctor to get the attention and information they need to not only get better but reduce the spreading of disease.”
A multi-billion-dollar stimulus passed the U.S. House with bipartisan support early Saturday morning, aiming to slow the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate the economic impacts. It’s now before the U.S. Senate and President Trump said he’d sign it.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act includes free access to tests for the virus, including for those without health insurance. It would also boost unemployment benefits, strengthen government food programs for children, older people and those with low incomes and help states meet expenses for Medicaid, the government insurance program for the poor.
There’s a temporary provision for 10 days of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for those affected by COVID-19, which is a significant move, as the United States is the only wealthy country that doesn’t require such a benefit.
But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — which lobbied heavily against including sick leave at all, in a parallel with the state-level fight in Michigan two years ago — won some big concessions, national media, including HuffPost, report. It doesn’t apply to companies with more than 500 employees and small businesses with 50 employers or fewer can seek hardship exemptions.
New Michigan legislation
The fight for a state-level solution isn’t over.
Last week, Kuppa — an Oakland County freshman Democrat who flipped a GOP seat — introduced House Bill 5628, which would restore the cuts Snyder signed in 2018 to paid sick time benefits. She points out that self-distancing tactics intended to slow the spread of the virus will be made much more difficult for workers and their family members unable to stay home from work in communities across Michigan.
“Paid sick time is critical for working families across Michigan, especially with COVID-19 on our doorstep,” said Kuppa. “Without the ability for our workers to stay home when they are sick, it can become a health concern for us all. The spread of this virus once again reinforces our need for immediate action on this issue.”
The bill has a couple dozen co-sponsors — all Democrats — and is a long-shot for passage in the GOP-led Legislature. A spokesman for House Speaker Chatfield didn’t respond to an inquiry from the Advance if he would support Kuppa’s measure.
If you’d like an indication of what an uphill climb the legislation is likely to face with Republican lawmakers, however, they did go to court to defend their “adopt and amend” maneuver. When the Supreme Court passed on issuing a ruling in December, Chatfield told the Advance, “I consider it good news. What we did was lawful and I’m glad to see that others are in agreement.”
Despite the obstacles, Kuppa is still pushing for her bill requiring employers to provide a minimum of one hour of earned sick time for every 30 hours worked for their employees capped at 72 hours of earned sick time per year, instead of the current accrual rate of one hour for every 35 hours worked with a cap at 40 hours of earned sick time per year.
For more than six years, Alyson Lambert, 27, has been the assistant manager for an outpatient clinic in Flint. She still doesn’t have benefits, including paid sick time.
“With the coronavirus pandemic rapidly causing the closing of businesses in Michigan, the fear of my employer closing the company — no matter how long the period of closure is — is extremely stressful,” she told the Advance. “If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. I don’t have any children, but I do have bills that have to be paid on time, and I have no idea if any of my debtors will allow late payments or the possibility of no payment.”
Lambert said that Kuppa’s paid sick leave proposal “would definitely be beneficial in the short term. I do think that a longer period should be given, as 72 hours may not be long enough in some cases, especially if the employee were to have a doctor’s note that states they should not work for longer than 72 hours.”
She added that she believes sick leave should be a benefit employers are required to give all employees, full- or part-time.
Atkinson praised the legislation as for aiming to “restore the original intent of the MI Time to Care proposal before it was gutted by the corporate lobby corps and Republicans.
“Having access to paid sick leave is a necessity for everyone year round, but it’s even more important in the midst of a public health crisis,” she added. “… People should have the ability to take care of themselves and their families when they’re sick without facing dire financial hardship. This should be a bipartisan issue where everyone can come together.”
The MLPP also backed the 2018 MI Time to Care ballot measure. CEO Jacobs said Kuppa’s proposal is critical during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Now that we’re facing this public health crisis, it’s more important than ever to look at strengthening the state’s earned sick leave policy and getting it closer to what Michigan voters and advocates like the League supported in 2018,” she said.
“A virus doesn’t know who has sick days. A virus doesn’t know who has insurance. A virus doesn’t know who can afford treatment. If this trajectory continues — and we have every indication that it will— we’ve got to find a way for more people to stay home when they’re sick without sacrificing a paycheck and their ability to provide for their family. As the Legislature continues to look for ways to address the coronavirus, we hope they will make better paid sick leave a priority.”
GOP moves on Medicaid cuts
Republicans have shown little interest in boosting the overall safety net, even with the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan.
Just last week, the GOP-led state House passed a measure that could hurt low-income workers and families even more, in spite of the coronavirus outbreak. On a party-line vote, the chamber passed a concurrent resolution asking the Trump administration to re-establish work requirements for Medicaid eligibility. Under another law Snyder signed in his last year in office, individuals are mandated to report work and qualifying activities in order to be eligible for health care.
Whitmer strongly opposes the work requirements and backs the suit, arguing that 80,000 Michiganders could lose health coverage. In a special message in December 2019, she asked GOP leaders to delay the mandate, arguing that “every Michigander deserves access to quality, affordable health care” and “health care for hundreds of thousands of Michiganders is on the line here.”
Shirkey and Chatfield quickly declined and argued the work requirements are a positive for Medicaid recipients.
“Getting a job is the best way to become self-sufficient for a lifetime and escape poverty,” the Republicans said. “Pausing the program takes that away and pushes people deeper into dependency, unhealthy behaviors and long-term poverty. All Michigan families deserve a path and a plan toward a better future.”
On Thursday, state Rep. Robert Wittenberg (D-Oak Park) was blunt in a brief floor speech against the GOP resolution calling for the work mandate to be reinstated.
“Mr. Speaker and members of the House,” he said, “I think it is inhumane to vote to encourage the U.S. Secretary of HHS [Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar] to appeal a federal court ruling that could potentially kick hundreds of thousands of Michiganders off of their health coverage.”
His words fell on deaf ears. And for now, as cases of coronavirus surge, many workers in Michigan — and across the country — appear to be on their own.