How The COVID-19 Government Paid Leave Mandate Complicates Individual Problem Solving

It makes sense for the government to step in during an emergency, like the COVID-19 crisis, in which so many employees are prevented from working. But the new paid sick leave mandate also exemplifies how one-size-fits-all government solutions short-circuit individual problem-solving.

Under the new emergency measures, employers with fewer than 500 employees are required to provide two weeks of fully paid leave to full-time employees directly affected by the virus, which includes employees who have children home due to closed schools and daycare centers. In addition, some employees are eligible for 10 more weeks of expanded family and medical leave at two-thirds pay.

This impacts small organizations like the one I run—Independent Women’s Forum. We’ve long operated as a virtual organization, so we were fortunate that our employees are well accustomed to telework. But that doesn’t mean we are unaffected.  We have many employees with children, which means that as schools and daycares close they are juggling additional childcare responsibilities.

We were ready to handle this without government intervention. We talked to our employees, both as a group and one-on-one, to explain that we understand that not everyone would be able to handle as much work as usual. We emphasized that we want people to prioritize their health, both mental and physical. We already offer paid sick leave if people need it, but we also have a give-and-take between employers and employees so that we can find a different kind of solution in which people continue to work, even if at a slower pace.

Everyone on staff has responded with camaraderie: One employee who doesn’t have children let everyone know that they could pass off work to her when needed. We’ve joked about how kid noises are now an expected feature of our staff conference calls.

What does the new government mandate mean for businesses like ours? Does that mean that everyone is supposed to have an additional 10 days of paid sick leave and that during that time we can’t expect employees who have children home to answer any emails or perform any work at all? Presumably, that’s exactly what it means — that during this government-mandated paid leave, employees are entirely absolved from any duties and employers cannot distinguish between those who step up and those who don’t.

We are fortunate that this isn’t likely to be an issue for our group of highly-motivated individuals who truly think of themselves as a team. But what about other employers, who are similarly situated and transitioning to telework? This mandate short-circuits the development of customized win-win solutions and makes it harder for businesses to do right by their employees, while still keeping their businesses running and satisfying customers and their mission.

Policymakers should work to avoid such sweeping mandates, and focus intervention only on those who truly need it and on those who lack paid leave and need financial support. Employers and employees want to work together during this crisis; the government shouldn’t make it harder for them to do so.

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