As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, it is revealing holes in policies to support workers’ health and caregiving needs. And people’s starkly different experiences with the disease are creating additional gaps.

COVID-19 is revealing what occupational health experts have known for a long time: workers facing seemingly identical illnesses and injuries can experience very different health outcomes, leading some to quickly recover and return to work speedily, while others require longer leaves and additional assistance to get back to work.

The pandemic has also called attention to large gaps in access to paid family and medical leave to care for an ill loved one or recover from one’s own illness or injury—leave that helps protect people from the financial consequences of a health shock. At both the state and national levels, support is increasing for a comprehensive paid leave benefit. At the national level, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act provides a solid framework for a 12-week benefit for parental, caregiving, and medical leave. And in states with comprehensive programs, medical leave for a worker’s own illness or injury is responsible for two-thirds of the cost of the program and is the benefit most used by low-wage workers.

Replacing lost wages for workers with serious illnesses and injuries is vital but insufficient. Evidence shows return-to-work services improve health and employment outcomes and can help workers avoid or delay permanent disability and exiting the labor force. But most workers do not have access to them. Our new brief suggests that to better support workers who have difficulty returning to their jobs after experiencing a new serious illness or injury, state and paid family and medical leave programs should consider expanding targeted RTW services.

Read the full article about return-to-work policies by Jack Smalligan and Chantel Boyens at Urban Institute.