The fourth ‘W’ needed to defeat the virus

Experts have made us all familiar with the three Ws we need to follow during

Experts have made us all familiar with the three Ws we need to follow during the pandemic: wash your hands, wear a mask, watch your distance. If we’re going to defeat this virus, we need to add a fourth W to that list: Wait to go back to work until you know you’re healthy if you’ve been exposed to COVID-19.

As we are well aware from the work we do to improve public health, employees can follow that guidance only if doing so won’t cost them their paychecks or their jobs. That means they need access to paid sick time.

With bipartisan support, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) last spring and included two fully-paid weeks for those who need to get tested, quarantine, isolate, or care for a loved one with COVID-19. The law also provides up to 12 weeks of emergency paid leave, at two-thirds pay, to care for a child whose school or care center is closed because of the pandemic.

The policy has been in place long enough for researchers to quantify the results. A recent report in Health Affairs showed that the paid sick time provision in FFCRA made a significant difference in flattening the curve of the virus, resulting in approximately 400 fewer confirmed new cases per state, per day, relative to the period before FFCRA passed. Those numbers reflect tens of thousands of workers.

Small business owners have found the law enormously helpful. Business owners have explained that the program incentivizes people to make the right decisions, so that employees and employers aren’t punished for looking out for everyone’s health. When an employee tests positive for the virus, thanks to FFCRA, that person can recuperate without losing their pay, and the employer can hire a temp for those two weeks without taking a financial hit.

The paid sick time and emergency paid leave provisions of FFCRA are set to sunset in two weeks. Recently, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimated what it would cost to extend it; the amount was about one-tenth of the Congressional Budget Office’s original projection, and much less than unemployment benefits. And who will tally the savings compared to the cost of a human life, an eviction, a family without food or lights?

Our nation’s leaders should be debating how to expand this provision in FFCRA, which excluded up to 106 million workers. We expected the Senate to be discussing how to lift the sunset, close the loopholes and protect everyone. Instead, we are appalled to see that the Senate majority leader is keeping paid leave off the table altogether.

That’s not just bad politics; it’s bad science and bad economics. And it’s a disaster for public health. We call on the Senate leadership to wake up and listen to their constituents, health experts and economists. Extend the paid leave provisions in FFCRA and expand them. Allow people to wait at home until they’re safe to return to work after quarantining, isolating or providing care for a loved one. 

Our nation has lost more than 300,000 lives. The vaccine alone won’t stop the virus. We’ll need to continue washing our hands, wearing masks, watching our distance. Everyone is able to follow that path. Our political leaders must make it possible for those who are exposed to the virus to wait to return to work until they know they are healthy. That’s how we’ll win the battle against this virus.

Curtis Chan, M.D., a pediatrician and preventive medicine physician, is serving as co-chair of the Maternal, Child & Adolescent Health Committee of the California Conference of Local Health Officers.

Wendy Chun-Hoon is executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions in more than two dozen states working to win paid time off for caregiving.

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