NSC Business and Industry Division news NSC Labor Division news Research/studies Workplace exposures Worker Health and Wellness

Many workers didn’t use (or know about) federally funded COVID-19 sick leave: study

face mask
Photo: 12726884/iStockphoto

Ithaca, NY — Many workers who became ill during the early part of COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t take time off and more than half were unaware that federally funded emergency paid sick leave was available, according to the results of a recent study.

Using data from the Cornell National Social Survey that was gathered between October and December 2020, researchers from Cornell University found that around 8 million workers benefited from the now-expired Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which required certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. However, “the share of employees who needed but could not take paid sick leave tripled during the pandemic,” the study’s abstract states.

About 15 million employees per month had “unaddressed sick leave needs.” Female workers were at a 69% higher risk of experiencing unmet sick leave needs, according to a press release from the university.


Part-time and foreign-born workers were most likely to be unaware of available paid sick leave. Awareness also was low among service and hospitality workers, who were among those considered essential during the early part of the pandemic.

“When the government does not ensure that people have access to paid sick leave, people go to work sick,” Nicolas Ziebarth, study co-author and associate professor in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, said in the release. “And when you have a virus going on – it could be the flu or coronavirus, it doesn’t really matter – then the sick people at work infect co-workers, who go on to infect other people. If they send a kid sick to school, because they can’t afford to stay home with them, the sick kid infects other kids, who likely infect their families. The point is that you have more virus infections in the population, which is bad for population health.”

The study was published online in July in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Post a comment to this article

Safety+Health welcomes comments that promote respectful dialogue. Please stay on topic. Comments that contain personal attacks, profanity or abusive language – or those aggressively promoting products or services – will be removed. We reserve the right to determine which comments violate our comment policy. (Anonymous comments are welcome; merely skip the “name” field in the comment box. An email address is required but will not be included with your comment.)