Publication Date



Paid sick leave is vital for controlling the spread of illness in the workplace and an invaluable public health tool, but too few workers have access to it. In this brief, we examine the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to assess paid sick leave coverage with a focus on the social and economic characteristics of workers without paid leave.

Using a nationally representative survey with roughly 4,000 working respondents, we found that a third lacked access to paid sick leave. Workers without paid leave were younger, more likely to be female, more likely to be white, and less likely to have a college degree. More workers without paid leave had smaller employers, meaning employers with fewer than 50 employees. Workers in care- and service-based industries had less access to paid leave. Part-time employees and those paid hourly rather than salaried were also less likely to have paid leave.

Workers without paid sick leave experienced greater financial challenges, had lower household incomes and had net worth. They also reported lower self-rated financial wellbeing and were less likely to have emergency savings to cope with sudden income drops.

In March of 2020 the federal government implemented two weeks of paid sick leave via the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FF-CRA), but the policy only encompasses businesses with 50 to 500 workers, leaving out many workers, particularly those most likely to lack paid sick leave to begin with. Enacting a universal paid sick leave policy would likely lessen economic strain for working families, reduce existing economic inequalities across social groups, and improve overall public health.

Document Type

Research Brief

Original Citation

Rothwell, David; Fox-Dichter, Sophia; Despard, Mathieu; and Michal Grinstein-Weiss, “Paid Sick Leave Heading into COVID-19: A Descriptive Account of Workers who Lacked Paid Sick Leave,” (Nov, 2021). Social Policy Institute Research.



Paid sick leave, COVID-19, benefits, employment