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As Cases Surge, Governor Hochul Moves to Kill State-Mandated COVID Sick Leave

"It's concerning for the business community and frankly the rest of New York to act like COVID’s in the past, when the numbers show a very different reality."

Governor Kathy Hochul holds a Health Update (Darren McGee- Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

Governor Kathy Hochul holds a health update on August 22, 2022 (Darren McGee / Governor’s Office)

Governor Kathy Hochul is moving to strip away the paid sick days that New Yorkers infected with COVID-19 have been guaranteed since the beginning of the pandemic.

In her budget proposal, Hochul calls for the COVID paid sick leave law to be repealed at the end of July. 

The push to end the benefit comes amid a major wave of virus cases, which experts estimate is the second largest of the pandemic.

"It's concerning for the business community and frankly the rest of New York to act like COVID’s in the past, when the numbers show a very different reality," said Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos, who chairs the labor committee. "It's pretty nonsensical."

The state law, passed in an emergency session in March 2020 as the pandemic bore down, requires most employers to pay their workers while they isolate with a COVID infection. 

Businesses with 11 to 99 employees have to provide five paid sick days. Businesses with 100 or more employees, as well as all public employers, have to provide 14 days. Employers with 10 or fewer workers and less than $1 million in revenue only have to provide unpaid sick days, but workers can get partial pay from state family leave and disability benefits. The policy also applies if an employee's child gets COVID and has to quarantine. The required COVID sick leave is in addition to any other paid time off an employer may offer, but workers are limited to using it three times in their lifetime.

According to the CDC, people who test positive for COVID should isolate for five days.

Business groups have been lobbying the governor to scrap the law, saying it is too costly. The plan to repeal it would have to be approved by the state legislature, where it could face resistance. 

A spokesman for Hochul did not answer specific questions on why she is moving to repeal the COVID sick leave policy now, but pointed to the state’s more general paid sick leave law, which took effect in 2021. It requires employers to give their workers one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to five days for employers with 5 to 99 workers and seven days for those with more than 100 workers.

“New York State has one of the nation's strongest paid sick leave policies, providing most employees with up to 56 hours of paid sick leave each year,” said spokesman Avi Small.  

He also noted that the governor has proposed increasing benefits for workers out on medical and disability leave.

Opponents of the repeal say that is insufficient, since employees may get COVID and have to isolate after they’ve used up those days.

"People show up to work sick because they absolutely have to work, because they can’t miss a paycheck. It’s really dangerous," Ramos said. 

“This should not get done in the budget,” Ramos added, noting the proposal is not related to state finances. "We need to hear from the experts, from the medical community."

COVID-19 cases have been surging this winter. In New York State, the number of reported cases peaked at 7,120 in January—a number that only captures a small fraction of actual cases since most tests are done at home, but compares to a few hundred reported daily cases when there is a lull in virus transmission. 

Wastewater monitoring shows high COVID levels in 167 of New York’s sewer sheds, compared to just 7 at moderate levels and one at low levels. As of February 1, there were 1,981 people hospitalized for the disease; 618 New Yorkers have died of COVID in 2024 so far according to the most recent data.

"If you want a better workforce, if you want a workforce that’s healthy, it’s better for people to stay home and heal rather than coming in to infect their customers and coworkers," said Dr. Sharon McLennon-Wier, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, who added the governor’s proposal would be especially detrimental to workers with medical conditions.  

"Coming to work can be quite hazardous. They’re more susceptible to getting sick," she said. "Working in a place where there is not paid sick time is really detrimental to their health because they’re going to be exposed."

Hochul has faced pressure for months from business groups asking her to end the mandate. 

Employers are "reacting with joy" to the governor’s proposal, said Frank Kirbein, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Business Council of New York State.

"Since March of 2020—we’re coming up on four years now—employers in New York State have been footing the bill for this, and it’s been significant," he said. "We now have paid sick leave which employees can use if they’re impacted by flu, COVID, RSV, whatever. COVID isn’t something that’s unique and special anymore."

Ashley Ranslow, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the COVID sick day requirement "was really intended to be temporary."

The spread of COVID in the workplace has also cost employers money—and shrunk the state’s workforce. A report last year by New York’s largest workers compensation insurer found that $20 million was paid out in claims to COVID patients exposed at work in the first two years of the pandemic, including $17 million to people who developed long COVID. The study by the New York State Insurance Fund found that 71 percent of claimants with long COVID required ongoing medical treatment or were unable to work for at least six months.

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