Workers forced to take time off because of COVID have lost $28 billion in wages

  • During the first two years of the pandemic, a lot of workers had to call out for work.
  • Workers were absent for illness, childcare, and other obligations — and less than half of absences were paid.
  • Low-income workers, workers of color, and women were more likely to take unpaid absences.

Working through a pandemic took its toll on many Americans — and a new study shows just how much of an economic hit the lowest-paid workers bore.

In fact, as workers dealt with unpaid absences from work for being sick, or having to deal with childcare and other personal obligations, it may have cost them $28 billion.

That’s according to a paper from the Urban Institute and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Authors Chantel Boyens, Julia Raifman, and Kevin Werner looked at worker absences tracked by the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.

It’s yet another example of how the economic effects of the pandemic were felt unevenly, and the lowest-earning and most precarious workers were disproportionately impacted.

Those absences came when workers called out because they were sick, or had to deal with childcare and other family obligations. From March 2020 to February 2022, the number of absences rose by 50% compared to the two years prior. But only 42% of those absences were paid, according to the study. 

Indeed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 77% of private-industry workers had access to paid sick leave as of March 2021. But that was disproportionately concentrated among high earners. Out of the workers in the lowest 10% of earners, just 33% had access to paid sick leave, compared to 95% of the workers in the highest 10%.

The study finds that low-earning workers, workers of color, and women were some of the groups with the biggest spikes in unpaid absences. Women were more likely to take unpaid absences, and workers in households earning below $25,000 were the most absent — they were 2.3 times more likely to not be at work than households making over $100,000.

The toll: Billions of dollars in missed wages. The authors wrote that “workers missed out on roughly $28 billion more in wages between March 2020 and February 2022 than the previous two years from absences because of illness, child care, and family or personal obligation.”

That was falling mostly on “populations most vulnerable to economic hardship, including people who are low income, self-employed, Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and women,” according to the report.

Existing available leave “policies fail to cover many workers who are most at risk of COVID-19 and economic hardships resulting from a temporary loss of wages,” the authors wrote. 

As Economic Policy Institute’s Elise Gould previously told Insider, paid sick days can be helpful for parents who need to care for their family or their own health. However, recent attempts to institute widespread leave access have failed, meaning that workers have to rely on their employers — or their own savings — to keep themselves afloat if they need to take time off.

“The lack of paid sick leave and the profound level of economic insecurity, that is just kind of the status quo for most of this workforce,” Kristen Harknett, cofounder of The Shift Project and an professor of sociology at the University of California San Francisco, previously told Insider’s Bethany Dawson. “That means that if you skip work, you’re foregoing pay at a minimum, and jeopardizing your job, potentially, as well.”

Although new coronavirus cases aren’t as high as they previously were during the pandemic, the authors of the brief note why having paid sick leave available is still important as the pandemic continues. 

“As COVID-19 reinfections become more likely, a lack of paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave policies increasingly contributes to economic hardship, food insufficiency, and housing insecurity among workers and their families,” the authors of the report wrote.