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Some states have blocked paid sick-leave laws. That could be causing higher worker mortality.

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Prior to the pandemic, almost two dozen states had passed laws prohibiting local governments from mandating paid sick-leave policies — an issue that may be contributing to a rise in worker mortality, according to a new study. 

The mortality rate of working Americans rose 6% from 2010 to 2017, even as the death rate for infants and people over 65 fell during that period, according to an analysis from Syracuse University, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 

The U.S. is the only wealthy nation that does not have a federal law guaranteeing paid sick days for its workers — which leaves the issue to states, local governments and employers to decide. This lack of paid leave for illness became an issue during the COVID-19 pandemic, as millions of workers were forced to decide between their health and their paychecks.

According to the researchers, four counties — Orange County in Florida and Bexar, Dallas and Travis counties in Texas — tried to pass paid sick-leave requirements but were blocked because their states disallowed counties from passing worker-protective laws.

In large cities located in states where local governments are banned from instituting paid sick-leave laws, mortality rates for workers could be reduced by more than 5% if those cities were able to mandate 40-hours of annual paid time off for illness, the researchers said.

"State preemption laws that protect profits over people may be shortening the lives of working-age Americans," said co-author Jennifer Karas Montez of Syracuse University in a statement about the research.

She added that the researchers were "surprised" by the size of the impact on mortality in states where paid sick-leave laws are barred by local governments. 

Mandating paid sick-day laws

Fourteen states and Washington, D.C. mandate paid sick days for workers, who generally accrue the paid time off based on the number of hours they work. For instance, employees in California are guaranteed to have one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work. 

Before the pandemic, 23 states had passed laws preventing local governments from mandating paid sick time from employers, although five of those states had paid sick-leave laws on statewide level, according to a 2020 analysis by the Urban Institute. 

That means that workers in many states have "no right to paid sick time and can only access it if their employer chooses to offer it as a benefit," the Urban researchers noted. States without laws that guarantee paid sick leave range from Alabama to Wyoming, according to human resources site SHRM.

The Syracuse University researchers found that each additional hour of mandated paid sick leave is linked to "a significant reduction in mortality due to suicide and homicide for men, and for homicide and alcohol-related deaths for women."

Workers who can't access paid sick leave and need to take time off to recover from illness are more likely to suffer economic hardship and job losses, thereby increasing the risk of drug use and suicide, the researchers added.

"[E]ven before the COVID-19 pandemic, the absence of a paid sick-leave requirement has contributed to troubling increasing mortality trends among working-age adults," they noted.

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