The need for paid sick leave has gained attention during the COVID-19 pandemic. Paid sick leave is a policy tool to reduce the spread of the virus—by incentivizing sick workers to stay at home—and as an income support, especially for workers with low wages whose employers are less likely to provide this benefit. Before the pandemic, 11 states, the District of Columbia, and 23 cities or counties had paid sick days (PSD) policies in place. At the same time, 23 states had preempted localities from enacting their own laws. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, 32 states or localities have acted to protect workers by passing new PSD laws or expanding existing benefits or eligibility.
In this brief, we examine how state preemption of local PSD policies affected states’ ability to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and whether localities in states without PSD preemption have adopted new policies or innovations to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. To investigate these questions, we compare crisis response efforts in three jurisdictions: Orange County, Florida; Duluth, Minnesota; and Denver, Colorado. These contrasting case studies provide illustrative examples of responses under different environments related to preemption, PSD policies, and the pandemic. We find that the political balance of power at the state level was associated with PSD policies, preemption, and other responses to the pandemic; the pandemic increased the acceptability of paid leave mandates; and institutional infrastructure—both at the agency level and business level—was effective in helping PSD laws achieve their purpose.