BOSTON (SHNS) – Vania Birchmore, a server at a rehabilitation center in Danvers, was diagnosed with COVID-19 in mid-November 2020 and sought time off from work to care for herself.
Her employer had previously offered paid time off for employees who contracted the virus but when she asked her boss late last year for paid sick leave, the answer was no. Birchmore said she has a “little savings” account to rely on but not receiving a regular paycheck while out of work would have made things tough.
“But things went a different way and thank God,” she said. “If I didn’t have that money, yes, it probably should be a little tough for us. But we survived.”
Birchmore turned to her sister, who helped her get in contact with Greater Boston Legal Services. The organization reached out to Birchmore’s company, which in turn provided reimbursable paid sick leave through the state’s COVID-19 Emergency Paid Sick Leave Program.
Birchmore’s story is similar to many others throughout the state and an example advocates of the program bring up: the emergency offering is helping low-income workers facing choices between work and their general health.
New numbers from the Baker administration show the program is at risk of running out of money soon but added funds are on the way under a $101 million COVID spending bill on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk. On Monday, Baker said he plans to sign the bill “sometime between now and the end of the week.”
The Legislature originally put $75 million into the sick leave program and earmarked an additional $25 million for the fund in the COVID spending bill.
As of Feb. 3, just over $61.3 million had been handed out in reimbursements to employers with another $5.6 million in claims still pending, according to data provided by the Executive Office of Administration and Finance. A total of 24,911 payments had been made.
Raise Up Massachusetts spokesperson Andrew Farnitano said the program is a critical tool workers can use to protect their health and for small businesses to avoid bearing the cost of additional sick time. The organization was one of the main groups behind the initial push to set up the fund.
And with the state just moving past another COVID surge, Farnitano said the organization expects the number of payments from the fund will increase as employers seek reimbursements for time taken off during the peak of the omicron wave in January.
“[$75 million] was enough funding to get us through the delta surge and through that immediate crisis that we were, I think, beginning to see when the program was rolled out last year,” he said. “Now, with the omicron surge leading to a rise in cases that we saw over the last few months, we need to ensure that the funding is there.”
Senate President Karen Spilka said the funds included in the COVID spending bill are “imperative to our ongoing efforts to mitigate” the spread of the virus.
“I am particularly proud that we again invest in the Senate’s initiative to provide paid emergency sick leave, ensuring that workers continue to receive a paycheck while caring for themselves, a loved one or a child who is sick or may feel side effects from the vaccine,” she said in a statement to the News Service last week.
Paid sick leave can also be used for people seeking vaccination appointments or parents looking for a shot for their child, a use Farnitano said is going to be particularly important once the federal government authorizes COVID-19 vaccines for children younger than 5 years old.
The program allows for 40 hours of paid sick leave with total pay capped at $850 per week. Farnitano said the pay limit is “generous enough that lower wage workers have been able to get their full wage replacement.”
“The primary goal of our legislation was to ensure that lower wage workers, who often do not have access to any sick time other than the state mandated earned sick time, receive this benefit,” he said. “Higher salaried employees tend to work in places where they have access to paid sick time or flex time.”
Birchmore, who has lived in the U.S. for 21 years after moving from Brazil, said she originally wasn’t expecting to receive anything when she took time off to recover from COVID-19. It was supposed to be a “tough time for us,” she said, “because less money but the bills are still the same, you know, you are always worried about that.”
“But the [sick leave payments], it was something amazing, okay, it helped me so much because I received my regular paycheck. I didn’t have any problems with that,” she said.