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News from EPI Paid sick leave access has expanded as states enacted new laws, but many low-wage workers still lack access

The share of the lowest-wage workers with access to paid sick leave has nearly doubled from 20% to 39% since 2010 as a growing number of states have enacted paid sick leave laws, according to a new Economic Policy Institute report. Overall, access to paid sick days has increased from 63% to 78% for all U.S. private-sector workers since 2010. However, lack of paid sick days is still a real problem for many workers—especially low-wage workers.

Since 2010, 15 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws requiring employers to allow workers to earn paid sick time. Workers have seen significant increases in access to paid sick time in areas of the country that implemented these new laws, with the Pacific and New England regions having the highest access rates at 94% and 87%, respectively.

Despite gains for low-wage workers, access to paid sick leave remains highly unequal. Among the 10% of private-sector workers with the highest wages, 96% have access to paid sick days—much higher than the 39% access rate for workers in the bottom 10% of the wage distribution. This is particularly troubling since low-wage workers are least able to absorb lost wages when they or their family members are sick.

For the average worker who lacks paid sick days, the costs of taking unpaid sick time can make a painful dent in their monthly budget. The report calculates that lost wages from taking five days of unpaid sick leave are equivalent to the average worker’s entire monthly grocery budget. Three days of unpaid sick time translate into the average household’s monthly utilities budget, potentially cutting off electricity or heat to the family’s home. Two days of unpaid sick time are more than the equivalent of a month’s worth of gas, making it difficult to get to work.

“Low-wage workers are the least likely to have paid sick days and the least likely to have room in their budget to take unpaid sick time. We shouldn’t make workers choose between going to work sick or going without pay. Expanding access to paid sick days will mean stronger, healthier families and communities,” said Elise Gould, EPI senior economist and co-author of the report. 

Far more full-time workers have access to paid sick time compared with part-time workers—87% versus 51%. Union workers are more likely to have access (86%) compared with nonunion workers (77%). And 89% of workers in large establishments (500 or more workers) have access as opposed to 71% of workers in small establishments (fewer than 50 workers).

Paid sick leave is a wise investment for businesses, workers, and communities. Studies have shown that offering paid sick time adds little or nothing to a business’s expenses. Moreover, increased access to paid sick leave can in fact benefit businesses and the wider community by increasing productivity and job stability as well as reducing illness and transmission rates of infectious diseases.

Passage of a national paid sick leave standard—such as the Healthy Families Act—would be the best way to ensure all workers are protected from health and economic insecurity when they become sick. In the absence of a national standard, states and localities still have a critical role to play in expanding access to paid sick days.

“State-level laws providing the right to paid sick days have had a significant impact on access to paid sick days across the country, particularly for low-wage workers. Congress should follow their lead and pass a long-overdue national standard that guarantees the right to earn paid sick leave,” said Hilary Wething, EPI economist and co-author of the report.