By Nathalie Voit 

U.S. workers without access to paid leave lost an estimated $28 billion in wages during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report released Aug. 10 from the nonprofit Urban Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found.

The study found that self-reported absences from work due to illness, childcare needs, and familial obligations increased 50% from March 2020 to February 2022 compared to the previous two years.

Most absences (81%) were due to a worker’s illness.

Low-income workers, self-employed workers, Hispanic workers, Black workers, women, and households with children saw the greatest increase in unpaid absences during this period.

The findings reveal that women were 42% more likely than men to take unpaid leave due to child-rearing and family caregiving obligations. Childcare absences were the least likely to be compensated during the pandemic–just 24% were paid.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of Hispanic workers and 57% of Black workers did not receive paid sick, medical or family leave when they called out from work to address illness or injury, childcare, and other family or personal obligations.

The report noted that self-employed workers were almost twice as likely to miss work without pay compared to those working for an employer.

Differences in access to paid leave were particularly stark when controlling for socio-economic status. The report found that workers in households earning less than $25,000 a year had the highest unpaid absence rate among all groups studied. Low-income households were more than three times as likely to take unpaid time off from work than households making $100,000 a year or more.

Workers who missed a standard five-day week of work between March 2020 and February 2022 reported an average weekly wage loss of $815.

Overall, due to unpaid leave policies, U.S. workers missed out on roughly $28 billion or more in wages during the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our analyses demonstrate that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing millions of additional worker absences, most of which are not paid,” Principal Policy Associate at the Urban Institute Chantel Boyens said in the release. “These unpaid absences disproportionately affect workers and families already at greatest risk of experiencing economic hardship, compounding disparities in income and health by race, ethnicity, income, and gender.”