Despite NYC’s Mandate, Disparities in Payment for and Use of Paid Sick Leave Persist

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series Nov 2023

Local sick leave laws are successful in increasing the number of workers who are paid when they need to miss work for health reasons; however, some groups do not fully benefit, and localities should thus focus on ensuring benefits reach all workers.

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In comparison to similarly wealthy nations, the United States lacks comprehensive policy that supports employees when faced with the need to take time off work to recover from an injury or illness. This policy gap was laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic which put front line workers at risk of transmission, underscoring the importance of such policy as a public health strategy and leading to temporary federal PSL guarantees in 2020. In the absence of a permanent federal mandate, many local governments, including NYC in 2018, have implemented their own mandates. In our recent paper, Early Effects of the New York City Paid Safe and Sick Leave Law, we assess the impacts of NYC’s 2014 PSL mandate, examining increases in payment for sick leave overall and identifying outstanding access barriers by demographic group.

PSL provides a range of benefits for workers and society as a whole. Employees with access to PSL are more likely to take time off when they are ill or injured, promoting their health and recovery. Studies have found that employees without PSL tend to spend more days in bed due to illness and may suffer from more severe health issues. PSL also plays a pivotal role in preventing the spread of illnesses in the workplace, which has implications for broader community health. Studies have shown that access to sick leave reduces airborne illness rates and can help control outbreaks in settings like nursing homes.

Often left to the discretion of employers, access to PSL is not uniform across the US workforce. Disparities exist based on industry, salary, race, and gender. While 77% of workers in private industry have access to PSL this rate varies significantly by sector, from 59% in the service industry to 93% among management and professional occupations. This unequal distribution is further exacerbated by the racial and gender segregation of the labor market.

In the absence of federal legislation guaranteeing PSL to all workers, several state and local governments have passed their own ordinances. In 2014, NYC followed suit by enacting the Earned Sick Time Act in 2014. This law was eventually expanded in 2018 and renamed to the Paid Safe and Sick Leave Law.

What we found in NYC

Our paper assesses the impact of NYC’s legislation on utilization of PSL. The study uses representative data from the New York City Longitudinal Survey of Wellbeing (NYC-LSW), collected over several years through phone, online, and paper surveys. We document statistically significant changes after the law was implemented, finding that among those who took sick leave, there was an 11 percentage-point increase in the share paid for all their leave and a 15 percentage-point decrease in the share not paid for any of their leave. Despite these promising gains, the data also show that certain demographic groups of workers, specifically Latino workers, those with lower education levels, and foreign-born workers, continued to face barriers in access to and payment for sick leave.

The implementation of PSL laws, like the one in NYC, has undeniably improved access to paid sick leave for workers. However, the analyses in our paper, Early Effects of the New York City Paid Safe and Sick Leave Law, reveal that disparities persist, with some workers continuing to face barriers in accessing a benefit that most workers in similarly wealthy countries are afforded. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has never been clearer that the lack of a comprehensive federal paid sick leave mandate leaves U.S. workers vulnerable to no-win decisions where they are forced to decide between losing pay and putting the health of themselves, their families, and customers at risk. Future policies, whether at the federal or local level, should take aim at ensuring equal access across the labor force with a particular focus on jobs that require face to face interaction such as those in the service and hospitality sectors.

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Author Profile

Matthew Maury
Matthew Maury is a research associate at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He formerly conducted research at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University where his work focused on experiences of poverty and hardship in New York City.
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