Paid leave mandate is a gamble for all

Aug 20, 2020

These days every time there’s a “mandate,” an inner alarm bell goes off.

Proclamation 20-67 is a pleasant surprise in the midst of the avalanche of mandates handed out since late February. 

The state’s newest mandate ensures workers who need to quarantine and have no other means of sick leave will have adequate funds to remain home without endangering the health of the other people around them.

Approximately $3 million in CARES Act funds have been set aside by the Washington State Department of Commerce for use as a reimbursement for employers who need to quarantine a worker who has no other form of paid sick leave.

Currently, the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act requires employers with less than 500 workers to provide paid sick leave in a COVID-19 related work absence. The fund established by Washington state creates an equal requirement for employers with more than 500 employees. The fund offers a reimbursement backstop of up to $860 for 80 hours of lost wages during a COVID-19 related work absence. Employees who are eligible for this program include local workers, seasonal or migrant workers, temporary foreign workers, or part-time independent contract workers. 

However, the program is a last resort with a planned maximum number of reimbursements of 3,488. 

The state is gambling there will be no major outbreaks of COVID-19 amongst any of the large agricultural employers around the state. As an example, one large employer in Washington currently employs approximately 12,500 people. If a tragedy occurred and approximately one-third of their workforce became ill with COVID-19 and was eligible for relief, all $3 million would be gone.

As the program rolls out, a suggestion for the Department of Commerce to consider: make it clear the fund is on a first come, first served basis to avoid any possible appearance of favoritism.

If the eligibility window of August 18 through November 13 is firm, there should also be a firm understanding that when the funds are gone, they are gone. Not because employees should be discouraged from taking the time off, they need for the sake of safety but because employers should understand the fund is meant to be a backstop, not a first stop for sick leave.

Certainly, an expansion of the fund would be helpful but the original funding source – the CARES Act – is not an unlimited fund. Theoretically, as farmworkers continue to earn paid leave, the fund will become less and less necessary throughout this growing season.

Various mandates have been rolled out throughout the course of this growing season including changes to temporary worker housing, assigned work groups, and PPE requirements, to name a few. All the mandates had the same goal: farmworker safety. Some had better success than others, but all were instituted with the intention to help keep workers safe and the food supply chain functional.

In many cases mandate has become a dirty word because of its connotation. This time around, it’s a way for employees of large and small farms to be treated equally – something we should all support.

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