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Governments need to find a solution to the lack of paid days off for millions of American workers

For anyone who thought public service was easy, here’s the conundrum suddenly facing Albany and Washington: How do you get sick workers without paid leave to stay home but avoid burdening small- and medium-sized businesses with expenses they may have trouble surviving? Somehow, that has to happen.

The problem has become urgent as COVID-19 encircles and infiltrates the planet. The easily transmittable virus has already compromised economies and upended normal life around the globe. One obvious way for the disease to spread is for people who may have it to continue working, in many cases because they have no other economic choice. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that 33 million American workers had no access to sick leave in 2019.

Consider a restaurant worker, fast food or otherwise, who has the symptoms of the novel coronavirus – fever, cough and shortness of breath – but is not provided with paid sick days. He has a family to provide for, rent to pay, debts to manage. He does what he feels he has to, and shows up for work, sneezing around coworkers, diners and the food that is being prepared.

That’s a real concern, although the problem extends to a sick-at-work culture, in which staff, managers and executives feel the need to demonstrate their dependability, illness be damned. At best, it’s a toxic loyalty, especially today. At worst, it’s a hazard to public health.

The question of paid sick days became an issue in New York before the novel coronavirus threw the world into disarray. Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed a law that would require businesses with 100 or more workers to provide seven days of paid sick time each year. Those with five to 99 employees would have to provide five days, while those with fewer than five workers would have to provide five days of unpaid sick time. The measure is included in the proposed state budget, over which the governor wields significant influence and which is due in just over two weeks.

As New Yorkers are learning, it’s a measure that addresses a real issue, but a key question is how fast the state should go in implementing a law that cuts deeply in both ways. It’s hard to achieve the right balance on something like this quickly, especially as a permanent measure as opposed to lasting no longer than the duration of the pandemic.

This state has learned more than once about the risks of legislating hastily. Even supporters of the state’s new bail reform law acknowledge defects that need to be fixed. The state’s gun control law – the SAFE Act – was rammed through the Legislature, but at least one aspect made little sense: limiting gun magazines to seven rounds.

Federal legislation passed by the House last week grants some sick leave, but it has enough exemptions to render it insufficient in a time of emergency.

The risks associated with a paid-leave law lie between endangering public health by doing nothing and risking the viability of businesses and the paychecks of their staff by doing too much too quickly. State and possibly federal officials need to consider these problems as they confront a serious problem made evident by the new coronavirus.

It’s possible they can find a way to help businesses over the short term as they take the time to consider a permanent solution. But it’s hard today to dispute that a balanced, permanent solution needs to be found.

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