Essential and Vulnerable: Most Service Sector Workers Lack Paid Sick Leave Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

BERKELEY, CA – With renewed attention on the critical importance of service-sector workers amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, The Shift Project finds that these essential workers still largely lack the ability to take time off when sick, putting them and the general public at risk. Before the current public health crisis, we surveyed more than 30,000 retail, grocery and food-service workers. More than half of these workers (55%) reported lacking access to paid sick leave.

Specifically, we show that only 8% of workers surveyed could take, with pay, two weeks off—the period of time public health officials recommend for quarantine when someone tests positive for COVID-19. “Even when a company has a policy, many workers face barriers to using it,” said Shift Co-Director Daniel Schneider, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley. He added that all of Shift’s data comes directly from workers themselves, providing a lens into their lived experiences, an important complement—and sometimes a counterpoint—to stated company policies.

The lack of access to paid sick leave is even more pronounced for female hourly workers. “We find that 58% of women report lacking access to paid sick leave at their jobs versus 52% of male workers,” said Co-Director Kristen Harknett, Associate Professor at UCSF’s School of Nursing, Social & Behavioral Sciences. “This inequality is particularly concerning because women in our sample are more likely to be single parents caring for young children.”

While there have been some rapid responses to address the widespread lack of paid sick leave in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Shift researchers note that many have not had an impact on retail, grocery and food-service workers. The Federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act expanded paid sick leave but exempted employers with 500 or more employees, including many retail and food-service workers employed by large chains. Additionally, some private employers in the retail and food sectors announced they would offer two weeks of paid sick leave, but that is only with a COVID-19 diagnosis or an official quarantine recommendation, which could render those policies inaccessible for most workers who need them.

“At the onset of this pandemic, most retail and food-service workers had no paid sick leave when they faced illness or urgent caregiving needs,” Schneider said. “Given that many of these workers are also perilously close to a financial cliff, they face a strong incentive to work even when sick. The widespread lack of paid sick leave for service-sector workers has serious consequences for workers’ own health, for the wellbeing of those they care for, as well as for public health. During a global pandemic, these consequences become all the more urgent.”

Shift researchers lay out three concrete ways to improve access to paid sick leave:

  • Build worker power – Workers in unions report more access to paid sick leave.
  • Raise the floor – States, counties and cities can enact laws to require employers to provide paid sick days. So far, 14 states and 18 cities and counties have done just that.
  • Take the high road – Some employers are leading by example and providing paid sick days. For example, more than 80% of employees at In-N-Out Burger, The Home Depot, Safeway, Costco, and Aldi reported access to paid sick leave.

We also find that gender gaps in paid sick leave are smaller among unionized workers, when states have raised the floor to require paid sick leave provision, and at high road firms.

Harknett said that the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the serious risks to workers and to public health when grocery, retail and food-service workers don’t have access to paid sick leave.

“Millions of workers continue to stock stores, fulfill take-out orders, and deliver necessities as many in America shelter-in-place,” Schneider added. “Their work is essential to meeting our country’s basic needs, but this work also exposes them to a highly contagious and potentially lethal disease. There are real risks to frontline workers and to the public if they don’t have access to paid sick leave.”

Read our latest research brief: “Essential and Vulnerable: Service-Sector Workers and Paid Sick Leave.”

Access our paid sick leave data here.


A joint project of UC Berkeley and UCSF, The Shift Project studies workers and workplace practices at the nation’s largest retail and food service firms. Shift researchers assess the consequences of precarious employment for worker and family health and wellbeing. The James Irvine Foundation provided funding and support for this research and brief.