Health Investigations

The best advice health officials have amidst coronavirus fears: wash your hands, don’t touch your face and stay home if you’re sick. 

But for many Kentuckians, that last option is not feasible. 

Kentucky is in a region that has the least access to paid sick leave, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. About 40% of private sector workers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi don’t have paid sick leave, the report found.  

“Low wage jobs are jobs at the front line of public interaction,” said Kentucky Center for Economic Policy executive director Jason Bailey. 

He pointed to childcare workers, home health aides, nursing home workers and restaurant and retail workers as some of the people most affected. 

“Those are the jobs that often don’t have paid sick leave, but yet are constantly interacting with the public,” he said. “We’re putting ourselves at great risk by the fact that we have so many people in those positions and in those situations who just don’t have the opportunity to take a day off.”

Twelve states and Washington, D.C. currently require employers to provide paid sick leave. Kentucky does not. 

“We’re really in a vulnerable situation… because we haven’t taken those actions,” Bailey said. “In the short term, there needs to be some immediate action to allow people to take paid sick days. And then longer term, one of the ways we prepare is to have these laws in place.”

State Sen. Morgan McGarvey has proposed a bill that would require Kentucky employers to provide paid sick leave. Employees would be entitled to eight hours of paid sick leave after 120 hours of work, and then accrue 1.5 hours for every 30 hours worked. 

McGarvey, a Louisville Democrat, said he thinks this would be an important step even if we weren’t facing coronavirus. But he said the expanding epidemic may lay bare how important these sort of protections are. 

“The government is telling people to stay at home,” said McGarvey. “But if there’s no paid sick leave, then if someone stays at home, they might risk losing their home if they can’t make the rent payment at the end of the month.” 

The bill faces an uphill battle in the Republican-led state house, which, in 2017, passed legislation that squashed efforts by local governments to pass ordinances requiring paid sick leave. 

That bill prohibited local governments from setting their own requirements for employers to provide “a certain wage or fringe benefit other than as determined by the employer,” effectively banning cities or counties from setting their own minimum wage or sick leave requirements. 

Kentucky Restaurant Association President Stacy Roof said she’s only heard from a few restaurants concerned about coronavirus. Her advice is simple: encourage employees to stay home if they’re sick and report symptoms if they have them. 

She said KRA’s members ensure that employees “have reasonable assurance that they aren’t going to be in trouble if they’re sick and have to be at home.” 

But, she acknowledged, the employee often needs the pay and is hesitant to call out sick in any hourly position. 

“So it’s not necessarily that the employer doesn’t respect or accommodate that, it’s that [the employee] doesn’t necessarily report it,” Roof said. “They don’t want to lose their wage.” 

But still, she said, paid sick leave should be up to each individual business. 

“They know their business model,” she said, “and what works for them.” 

Several national corporations have changed their sick leave policies in light of coronavirus, including grocery store chain Trader Joe’s. Darden Restaurants Inc., which operates Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse and other restaurants, is now giving all hourly workers paid sick leave. 

A spokesperson told Bloomberg that the policy change was already underway, but the company sped up the process in light of fears about coronavirus and COVID-19. 

Louisville is home to several national fast food corporations, including Yum! Brands, Texas Roadhouse, Papa Johns and Long John Silver’s, as well as gas station chain Thorntons. 

KyCIR reached out to all five, as well as Manna Inc., a local franchisee company with almost 300 restaurants in several states. 

None responded to requests for comment on their coronavirus plans for their employees.

A Yum! spokesperson sent a statement saying they’ve reinforced sanitation and hygiene at their restaurants and are monitoring the progression of COVID-19.

“We will continue to maintain our high standards and protocols for health and hygiene, as well as follow any locally-recommended guidance provided by health authorities,” the statement said.

The statement did not address whether their employees have paid sick leave.

This story has been updated to include a statement from Yum! Brands.

Eleanor Klibanoff covered Rust Belt decline and revival in Pennsylvania. She also worked for NPR and attended the George Washington University.