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Buoyed by Connecticut’s enactment this month of the nation’s first state law guaranteeing paid sick days to most workers, more than 200 organizers for paid family leave and paid sick days pushed for national legislation this week as they gathered in Washington, D.C.
Their movement is picking up steam, despite the obstacles in Congress and in many states to passing any legislation helping workers. The organizers, most linked to either Family Values @ Work or the National Partnership for Women and Families, came from 23 states and the District of Columbia. Though success with federal legislation in this Congress is unlikely, they anticipate passage of paid sick day legislation in the coming months in Seattle, Denver, New York City, and possibly both Massachusetts and, in a weak form, Georgia.
The failure of many employers to provide paid sick days, and the failure of the country, alone among advanced industrial countries, to mandate such protection causes great personal hardship. Torrie Moffett of Milwaukee, for example, lost four jobs in five years because she had to take time off to address school problems of her mentally ill child. None of her employers paid for sick leave or protected workers against dismissal for taking days off for sickness, as much of the new legislation mandates.
New research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research indicates that even at workplaces with paid sick days, nearly half of workers report that management has policies that could lead to dismissal for taking too many sick days.
Workers without paid sick days often simply can’t afford to take time off even when they are ill, often with contagious diseases they could spread to co-workers or customers and clients, according to a June report from the Economic Policy Institute. Just missing three days from illness in one month, an average worker without paid leave — making $10 an hour — would be on the verge of falling below the poverty line, EPI reports.
Paid leave is good not just for workers, says Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, but also for the economy as a whole and even for employers. Studies of San Francisco after several years of mandated paid sick days shoed that six out o seven employers reported no problems and job growth was faster than in five surrounding counties, Bravo says. And PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm, ranked the city the third best for business. Employers benefit by keeping skilled staff.
Instead of such regulation killing jobs, Bravo says, research shows that paid sick days lead to job retention and stability, particularly important in an economic recovery. “The jobs killer,” Bravo argues, “is lack of paid sick days.” Both paid sick days and, to a slightly lesser degree, paid family and medical leave, score strong public support in polls, typically at or above 60 to 70 percent approval of legislation setting such standards. For example, in a 2010 National Opinion Research Center survey, 75 percent of those polled supported a mandate for a minimum number of paid sick days, with 61 percent strongly supporting it.
That makes it a bit easier for core advocate groups, like women’s, public health and labor organizations, to build the broader coalitions — including many business owners — that have so far been the key to legislative victories.
Newly proposed federal legislation would guarantee up to seven days of paid sick time for all employers of 15 or more workers. Other legislation would set up an insurance fund financed by payments from employers and employees to compensate for family and medical leave.
High-earning workers and public-sector workers are more likely to have some protection now than low-wage private sector workers, but legal guarantees can reinforce those policies.
Also, Bravo says, “You may have paid sick days, but when you go to a restaurant, you don’t want to be served flu with your fries. Everyone has a stake in it.”
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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.