The US was on the brink of its first national rail strike in 30 years. The walkout was averted only after Biden and Congress imposed upon rail workers the terms of a new contract which offered a pay rise, an additional personal day and a few other benefits - but no paid sick leave.
The outcome has outraged thousands of workers who had hoped for more support from a political party and a president who had campaigned on the promise of passing national sick leave and supporting unions.
"Here Biden is supposed to be this super pro-labour president and Amtrak Joe and everything like that," said 45-year-old railroad worker who doesn't have any paid sick leave, referring to a nickname given to the president for his fondness of riding the national passenger rail. Gabe, who has worked for the railroad since 2004, said the companies could afford the benefit, noting that they have earned record profits in recent years.
The US is one of only two countries in the 38-member Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development without a national law guaranteeing paid sick leave for its workers. The other, South Korea, is now trialling a paid sick leave programme.
16 states have passed laws requiring paid sick leave over the last decade, one in five workers across the country still does not have access to the benefit, with low-wage workers most at risk.
"It's clearly an area where we need federal protections," said Jennifer Pomeranz, a professor of public health at New York University. "It shouldn't be because you live in a state that's more pro-business than another state that you lose paid sick leave."
The issue has emerged repeatedly in labour disputes in recent years, as workers, empowered by a strong job market and contending with coronavirus and an unusually severe flu and virus season, demand more from employers. For a time, during the pandemic, it seemed like a national policy might emerge. In 2020, Congress passed a temporary law requiring most companies to offer two weeks of paid sick leave to staff forced to quarantine due to Covid-19. But that expired at the end of the year and firms quickly trimmed the benefits.
Erik Loomis, a professor of labour history at the University of Rhode Island, said the Biden administration made a mistake not to take the issue more seriously. But he said no president, no matter how labour friendly, would be willing to risk an economically damaging strike over sick pay.