Brief Out Sick Without Pay
Chantel Boyens, Julia Raifman, Kevin Werner
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More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans continue to miss work from infections and caregiving for sick loved ones. Because of the lack of universal paid sick and paid family and medical leave in the United States, a COVID-19 infection also may mean a week or more without pay for many workers. We explore patterns of absences from work during the pandemic, including estimates of missed wages from unpaid absences.

Key Findings

  • Between March 2020 and February 2022, absences from work because of illness, child care, or other personal or family obligation increased by more than 50 percent compared with the two years prior. The reported absences closely tracked the rate of COVID-19 infections.
  • Fewer than half of the reported absences from work (42 percent) were paid. Workers in households with annual income under $25,000 were the least likely to be paid during their absence.
  • Overall, the percentage of workers taking an unpaid absence in a given week increased by over 60 percent during the pandemic compared with the two years prior. Certain groups saw even higher increases; for instance, Hispanic/Latinx workers saw their rate of unpaid absence nearly double during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The cost of not having paid leave is high. Workers collectively lost $28 billion more in missed wages during the first two years of the pandemic than in the two years prior.

Workers across all parts of society were more likely to take an unpaid absence during the pandemic than in the two years prior. Additionally, the pandemic exacerbated previously existing inequities in access to paid leave for some groups. Black and Hispanic/Latinx workers were more likely than white workers to take an unpaid absence prior to the pandemic, and during the pandemic, their chances of taking an unpaid leave increased by more than their white counterparts. In addition, women shouldered the majority of absences from child care and family or personal obligations.

We hope our research will shed light on patterns of missed work during the pandemic. We also hope to illuminate what steps may be taken to reduce the rate of unpaid absences from work.

Research Areas Economic mobility and inequality Social safety net Workforce
Tags Paid leave Family and medical leave COVID-19
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center