Data shows hundreds of businesses illegally denied paid sick leave during pandemic.
Lucie Joseph started to feel sick on April 28 as she rang up customers at a Shell gas station in Delray Beach, Florida.
Joseph said her boss wouldn’t give her time off without a doctor’s note. But the owner of the gas station, Sun Gas Marketing and Petroleum, didn’t offer her health insurance, so she didn’t go to the doctor. Joseph, a single mother with a 10-year-old son, kept working — seven more shifts over 10 days.
Joseph’s symptoms worsened, so she decided to get tested for COVID-19. On May 9, Joseph learned she had tested positive, and a nurse told her to quarantine. Over the next six weeks Joseph tested positive twice more and texted the results to a manager. As instructed, she didn’t return to work until she had two consecutive negative tests. On June 15, however, she was fired.
“I was stunned,” said Joseph, who showed the Center for Public Integrity images of the text messages with her employer and a document indicating she’d tested positive for COVID-19.
Joseph, who earned $13 an hour, didn’t realize she had a legal right to job protection. She eventually was paid two weeks’ wages, but even this violated the law: She should have been paid as soon as she went into quarantine.
Two months before Joseph was fired, President Donald Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires certain small- and medium-sized businesses to pay a worker’s full salary for two weeks if they become infected with COVID-19 and prohibits businesses from firing employees for taking leave.
But Joseph didn’t know about the law until she consulted a lawyer. Many other workers are equally uninformed.
Meanwhile, hundreds of U.S. businesses have been cited for illegally denying paid leave to workers during the pandemic, according to documents Public Integrity obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. As of June 12, nearly 700 companies had violated the law’s paid-leave provisions and owed back wages to hundreds of employees, according to Labor Department records. Violators include six McDonald’s franchises and the owners of Comfort Suites, Courtyard by Marriott and Red Roof Inn franchises.
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Two former Labor Department officials said the 692 paid-leave records obtained by Public Integrity likely reflect only a fraction of employers who are breaking the law.
“It’s very challenging for an employee, in a time of increasingly high unemployment and instability in the labor market, to have the courage to make a complaint,” said Michael Hancock, an employment lawyer at the firm Cohen Milstein in Washington, D.C., and an assistant administrator for policy in the Wage and Hour Division during the Obama administration.
The Wage and Hour Division has fielded more than 250,000 calls since the paid-leave law went into effect, and about 25 million people have visited its website. The division did not respond to questions about the number of complaints filed or investigations that remain open.
Violation data obtained by Public Integrity suggests investigators are not conducting companywide audits, Hancock and Goldman said. All but a dozen of the 692 violations involved just one employee at one company. Labor experts say that’s a sign federal investigators are not checking to see if other workers at a company were illegally denied leave.
Hancock called this one-off enforcement strategy “irresponsible.”
Goldman said the division should do more to educate workers and employers about the law because many may not know about the temporary paid-leave benefit.
Congress set aside $15 million for the Labor Department to spend on advertising and program administration. But the agency didn’t launch a major outreach campaign until mid-July — more than three months after the law was signed.
Of the six workers who spoke to Public Integrity, only one was aware of the law at the time it could have been of help.
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