President-elect Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion economic relief package includes proposals to bolster safety regulations for workers and expand the amount of paid sick, family and medical leave workers can receive.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased investor focus on how companies are handling paid leave related to the pandemic and mitigating the health risks their frontline workers face.
A Jan. 14 fact sheet provided by Biden's transition team listed several workforce-related measures in his plan. For starters, Biden called on Congress to authorize the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a COVID-19 protection standard that covers a broader set of workers and includes protections from unsafe working conditions and retaliation. Within that, Biden asked Congress to provide additional funding for OSHA enforcement and grants.
"Millions of Americans, many of whom are people of color, immigrants and low-wage workers, continue to put their lives on the line to keep the country functioning through the pandemic," the fact sheet stated. Biden proposed to put the requirement for paid sick leave back in place for employers with more than 500 employees and less than 50 employees. His plan emphasizes that healthcare workers and first responders should receive these benefits too.
In addition, Biden wants Congress to provide over 14 weeks of paid sick, family and medical leave to help parents when the school or care center for a child or "loved one" is closed, as well as for those caring for people with COVID-19 symptoms, those who are quarantining due to exposure and employees who need to take time off to get the vaccine. He called for extending existing emergency paid leave measures until Sept. 30 and expanding it to include federal workers.
In addition, Biden wants to provide a paid leave benefit of up to $1,400 per week for eligible workers and reimburse employers with less than 500 workers as well as state and local governments for the cost of this leave.
Biden also appealed to the business community to provide back hazard pay. "A large number of employers, especially in the retail and grocery sectors, have seen bumper profitability in 2020 and yet done little or nothing at all to compensate their workers for the risks they took," the fact sheet stated. "The president-elect believes these employers have a duty to do right by their frontline essential workers and acknowledge their sacrifices with generous back hazard pay for the risks they took across 2020 and up to today."
Biden also aims to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and end the tipped minimum wage and subminimum wage for people with disabilities. Congress has for years debated raising the minimum wage, which was last increased in 2007.
Biden's proposal comes at a time when investors and the public are paying increasing attention to issues like worker safety and how companies treat their employees. Focus on these social issues gained momentum alongside the growing environmental, social and governance movement, especially as many employees struggled to care for children or loved ones amid widespread closures of daycares, schools and nursing homes.
Family leave policies in the U.S. lag the rest of the developed world. The U.S. is the only country within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that does not offer nationwide, statutory, paid family leave of any kind, whether maternity leave, paternity leave or parental leave, according to a 2019 UNICEF report on family-friendly policies. In addition, the federal government does not provide paid caregiving leave to its citizens nor mandates companies to do so.
While a number of states have enacted paid family leave laws during the pandemic, the U.S. private sector has largely taken the lead in such policies in the absence of federal mandates, 2020 research by S&P Global found. Many parents and family caregivers saw their at-home commitments grow since the pandemic began, leading to increased stress and some feeling that they were being penalized at work for their increasing responsibilities, according to an S&P Global/AARP survey of nearly 1,600 people conducted in the late summer of 2020.
In the face of school and daycare closures, and with many children moving to virtual learning environments, the amount of time required for childcare duties since the pandemic began has increased for 58% of parents, according to the survey results.