WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing to let businesses and governments deny sick leave to workers who fall ill with COVID-19.
As Congress negotiates an end-of-year pandemic aid bill, McConnell is trying to block an extension of a paid sick leave program for people who get COVID that expires in two weeks, according to multiple Hill sources with knowledge of the negotiations.
Back in March, Congress passed a law mandating that workers are able to draw two weeks of paid sick leave if they contract COVID, two weeks of paid sick leave to care for a quarantining relative, and up to 10 weeks of paid family leave to care for a child whose school or daycare is closed for COVID-related reasons.
Those provisions are set to expire at the end of the year. Democrats initially sought to broaden the scope of the program and extend it. Those goals were lowered to merely extending the program for several more months due to Republican opposition, according to one Senate aide. Now Republicans, led by McConnell, are opposing an expansion of the program altogether.
Paid sick leave was already watered down to exempt big businesses. Any company with over 500 employees does not fall under the requirement to provide paid leave.
“That was a concession that Democrats made to Republicans,” a Democratic aide said of the March negotiations.
Businesses with under 50 employees can also apply for exemptions to the requirement. The federal government is footing the bill for the entirety of paid leave costs for businesses through refundable tax credits.
But state and local governments are not eligible for the tax credit and must bear the sick leave costs on their own. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the powerful Republican chair of the Senate Health Committee, said this is why he opposes an extension of the program.
“Paid sick leave is a good idea. We do it in my office, the federal government now does it, and many businesses do it. Unfortunately, current paid leave proposals impose billions of dollars in an unfunded mandate on state and local governments,” Alexander said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “If the federal government wants to require paid leave, the federal government should pay for it.”
The federal government can’t pay for it, however, because Republicans are also blocking funding for state and local governments from being included in the bill. This funding was one of the key demands from Democratic negotiators. But it was stripped out of the package, along with a Republican proposal for immunity from COVID lawsuits for businesses, because these were seen as the two most contentious negotiating points.
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The paid sick leave requirement was projected to cost $105 billion, but as of the end of October, businesses had only claimed $1.3 billion in tax credits, according to a Health Affairs study. The study found that paid sick leave lowered the spread of COVID and projected a 4-6 month extension would cost $8-$13 billion. That is a small fraction of the overall COVID bill, which is expected to come in around $900 billion.
“There is absolutely no reason, and no excuse, for failing to extend the lifesaving and bipartisan paid leave policy that is already on the books. Anything less would make absolutely no sense and be a catastrophe for millions of workers who shouldn’t have to choose between their health or their paycheck,” said Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health Committee.
McConnell’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Negotiations are expected to continue through the weekend.