One of many hand sanitizer stations around the US Capitol as the administration continues its response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Washington, DC, USA, 04 March 2020. Congressional negotiators have agreed to an emergency funding bill of an estimated eight billion US dollars to combat the coronavirus.US response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, Washington, USA - 04 Mar 2020

As employers in the U.S. take steps to contain the growing coronavirus outbreak, the question of paid sick leave may pose an obstacle to many retail workers.

A measure to grant workers up to 14 paid sick days during a public health crisis in the U.S. is stalled in the Senate as the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continues to spread.

On Wednesday, the measure introduced earlier this month by Democratic lawmakers Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut dissipated amid opposition by Senate Republican leadership. In the absence of federally mandated paid sick leave, some 27 percent of private sector employees would go without pay for taking sick days, Murray said when she introduced the measure on March 6. Paid sick measures would be significant for the retail industry, and particularly workers in the service and hospitality industries, Murray has argued, as the virus continues to spread. 

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization officially designated the outbreak a pandemic, pointing to “alarming levels of spread and severity and…alarming levels of inaction.” The latest Johns Hopkins University tally estimates there are some 1,110 confirmed cases in the U.S., with at least 30 deaths.

“Our primary goal right now for people in my home state and across the country needs to be slowing the spread of the virus in areas where there are outbreaks,” Murray said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “One of the best ways we can do this is by allowing workers who feel sick, or who need to stay home with a child whose school is closed, to do so without losing their paycheck or their job.” 

On Tuesday, Walmart said it urged employees stay home if they were feeling unwell, saying they could use their paid time off days to do so, and pointing out that the company would also offer additional paid time off in case of a required quarantine or confirmed COVID-19 infection.  

“We take the health of our associates seriously,” the company said on its web site. “As we’ve said before, we want any associate who is not feeling well to stay home.”

Meanwhile, worker advocates have highlighted the potential difficulties of getting diagnosed. On Tuesday, a New York Times report detailed the shortage of test kits in the U.S. amid delays by the federal government in assessing the outbreak here in its earlier stages. 

“Folks in retail are on the frontlines of this public health crisis, as people are going to places like Target and Walmart to stock up,” said Rachel Deutsch, supervising attorney for worker justice at The Center for Popular Democracy. 

“It would be great if we had a more robust federal response, so that we didn’t have to ask employers to step up quite as much, but we can’t just rely on confirmed cases being the trigger for people to get additional [paid] leave,” she said.

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