While extra unemployment benefits and stimulus checks have been the hallmark of the federal government’s response to workers during the pandemic, advocates say a lesser-known but critical benefit guaranteeing paid family and sick leave for employees has been underutilized. 

The Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act, part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, guarantees 80 hours of paid emergency sick leave for employees who contracted COVID-19 or cared for an ill family member. 

The law, enacted in March, also requires employers to pay workers for up to 12 weeks of family leave for employees to care for a child whose school or day care has closed. The law applies to companies with fewer than 500 employees but companies with 50 employees or less can apply for an exemption. 

The benefits expired at the end of December, after Congress failed to renew the Act. But legal advocates for workers are still trying to spread the word because the benefit may be claimed retroactively.

“We wish more people had known about it in 2020,” said Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president of the Nashville office of A Better Balance, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization for workers who are caregivers. 

Elizabeth Gedmark, A Better Balance (Photo: Twitter)
Elizabeth Gedmark, A Better Balance (Photo: Twitter)

“If workers were denied paid leave because they or someone they loved had COVID-19 or because of a school closure — or a summer camp — we can provide them with information about the federal laws,” said Gedmark. The nonprofit operates a helpline for workers to help them navigate the benefit. 

The benefit is more critical in states such as Tennessee that have long lacked paid family and sick leave policies and that have declined to enact expansive COVID worker protections.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have permanent guarantees to paid sick time for workers, and nine states have implemented paid family and medical leave laws, according to A Better Balance. New York and Colorado last year passed additional guarantees for sick leave for workers during the pandemic.

It remains unknown how widely the paid leave benefit has been utilized in Tennessee or across the nation. 

As of October 29, 149,830 employers nationwide had claimed credits for employee paid leave, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. 

National advocates say they are pushing the federal government for data on how widely utilized the paid leave was last year, even as they press for the legislation to be re-upped again this year.

Chantel Boyens, principal policy associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute said the complexity of the benefit has made it difficult to access.

“With unemployment insurance, it goes straight to the individual and you hear about it in the news,” Boyens said. “With paid leave, the employer has a role.”

A complex federal benefit would help Tennessee workers, who lack paid family and sick leave policies, but has led to confusion among employers.

The complicated benefit rules has also led to confusion among some employers about whether their employees qualify, she said.

Many front line workers are excluded by the federal emergency paid leave benefit, including most grocery store workers at chain supermarkets that employ more than 500. Small businesses have an out: they can exempt themselves from providing paid family leave if they believe they it would “jeopardize the viability of their business.” And healthcare workers and first responders were excluded as well. 

The Center for American Progress estimated that up to 1.1 million Tennessee private sector workers were potentially eligible for sick and family leave under the measure, but more than 1.5 million were not because of the size of their employer or because they were healthcare providers or emergency responders.