Public health advocates are working closely with Congress to ensure that workers who lack paid sick leave are not jeopardized — physically or financially — during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. Thanks to their efforts, legislation is moving forward rapidly, but more protections are needed — and quickly.

“We are in the midst of a crisis that none of us could have imagined,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on a Wednesday media call. “This pandemic has exposed grave weaknesses in our system. It is our duty to provide for those most vulnerable, in need and at risk.”

On March 18, the U.S. Senate passed a second package of emergency aid to address the COVID-19 pandemic, which President Donald Trump signed into law the same day. Called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the law provides limited paid sick leave, expands federal Medicaid contributions to the states and provides free testing for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The new law builds on an earlier package of COVID-19 legislation that was signed by the president March 6. It provides $8.3 billion in new funding to support public health professionals on the front lines as they work to fight the outbreak, which numbered more than 10,400 cases in the U.S. as of March 19.

While the new Families First law offers some help for workers, it “falls short of providing tens of millions of workers access to meaningful paid sick days or longer term paid leave,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., on the media call.

To address those gaps, a group of senators have authored the PAID — Providing Americans Insured Days — Leave Act. The APHA-supported bill was introduced on March 17 by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Rep. DeLauro and Sen. Gillibrand.

The PAID Leave Act would allow all U.S. workers to take advantage of 14 paid sick days and 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. The bill would fully and quickly reimburse employers for all paid sick days and paid leave in 2020 and 2021.

“No one should have to face choosing between caring for their health and keeping their job,” Murray said on the media call. “This bill provides immediate economic security for the tens of millions of workers left out of the Families First Act. No one should fall through the cracks.”

Senators who support expanding paid leave benefits tried to include the PAID Leave Act in Wednesday’s legislation as an amendment, but it was not accepted. They said they will push for the full bill to be included in the COVID-19 stimulus legislation being discussed now by Congress and the White House.

“This economic crisis will continue to worsen until we stop the virus,” DeLauro said. “We in the Senate and House don’t worry about staying home because we still get our paychecks. If this is good enough for us, it’s good enough for the American people.”

APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, MD, who also spoke on the Wednesday call, called the PAID Leave Act lifesaving legislation “for workers, their families and the rest of us.”

“Paid sick leave is not just about economic security,” Benjamin said. “It’s about saving lives.”

Contact your members of Congress and urge them to prioritize public health infrastructure and paid sick, family and medical leave in any future legislation to address the COVID-19 outbreak.

Go to APHA’s COVID-19 webpage for more resources and coverage.