Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

Now that many millions of Americans are getting vaccinated, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel for this pandemic. Getting Americans vaccinated as quickly as possible should be the number one priority, right? Surprisingly, some employers don’t think so.

You’d think that businesses would want to get their employees back in the office as soon as possible — but for workers without paid leave, their window to get the vaccine becomes limited: either take off work to get the shot, or schedule it on a coveted weekend when there may not even be available appointments. This country’s abysmal lack of paid time off is a self-inflicted wound that only hinders economic growth and an eventual return to normal — and it has to change. 

Last week, President Joe Biden pushed for employers to give their employees PTO to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and for any side effects they may deal with as a result. In the American Rescue Act signed on March 11, Biden offered a “paid leave tax credit that will offset the cost for employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide full pay for any time their employees need to get a COVID-19 vaccination or recover from that vaccination.”

Paid sick leave is a basic human right and should be treated as such. People should not be punished for being ill or having a medical problem. Employees should never have to choose between coming into work sick or staying home and losing a critical day of income for either themselves or their family. 

This should be a no-brainer. President Biden should not even have to call on employers to do this. In other countries, people would not think twice about giving employees PTO to receive the vaccine and recover from it. In the U.S., this is just not the case.

The U.S. is one of the only wealthy developed countries in the world that does not guarantee paid sick leave for most or all workers. Only 12 states, including Maryland, and D.C. require employers to provide paid sick leave, but there is nothing similar at the federal level. The federal government needs to pass legislation to guarantee sick leave for all workers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which measures labor and economic patterns, 24 percent of U.S. civilian workers, which is about 33.6 million people, do not have paid sick leave. Among those without paid leave are the workers who need it most: those making low hourly wages. Only 31 percent of workers making $10.80 an hour or less have paid sick leave, while 92 percent of workers making more than $32.21 have access to this “luxury.”

Lack of PTO further contributes to the wealth gap and disparities we already see in this country. Low-income workers need paid sick leave the most, since it can be difficult or impossible for them to miss a day of paid work, especially if they are already living paycheck-to-paycheck. A lack of PTO also harms women, who consistently have borne the burden of childcare and are often forced to pause or end their careers to do so. 

Compared to other wealthy countries, it is frankly embarrassing that the U.S. does not care enough to protect its workers and their rights. Workers cannot control if they get sick or have a medical or family emergency — unexpected crises should never be held against them. 

There’s no excuse for large corporations not to provide PTO because, for the most part, they can afford to pay their workers for days off. This might be more challenging for smaller businesses, but the government should step in to ensure this is feasible. President Biden has passed a paid leave tax credit that would solve this exact problem. While this does cost the government, it is worth it to make sure workers are being treated fairly.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed on March 18, 2020, “requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19.” This shows that during the pandemic, the idea of guaranteed sick and medical leave seems logical and does not face much backlash. But what about after the pandemic is over?

It is unfortunate that it takes a pandemic to bring the topic of sick and medical leave into the spotlight, but we need to take advantage of the attention that’s currently on the issue. COVID-19 has shown how important it is to prioritize health and safety, and there’s no reason we cannot carry this same idea into normal circumstances. Paid sick leave should not be a privilege — it should be a right in the U.S.

Courtney Cohn is a sophomore journalism and government and politics double major. She can be reached at