Refinery29, May 12, 2017
I’m pretty sure I once cost my mom her job — or was at least part of the problem. I wasn’t a healthy kid; I was prone to catching frequent colds thanks to severe allergies. When I was 14, my mom had a part-time job at an ad agency, and when I wasn’t feeling well or needed something, I would call my mom — a lot.
My mom often sounded flustered or irritated when she answered — though it was never directed towards me. It never occurred to me that she might have been frustrated because she didn’t have the space or freedom at work to take time off to take care of me. She was always there when I really needed her, but she didn’t stay at the ad agency for long. They indicated she was no longer a good fit for the office. She was the only parent on staff. I didn’t realize until after college that my mom never had access to paid sick days or paid leave in any of her jobs. But my mom is far from alone: Lack of paid sick or family leave is a national epidemic.
Paid leave allows a worker to take time off in order to prioritize wellness, family, and life outside of work without losing pay (or risking their job security). Paid leave includes, but is not limited to family leave, personal leave, and sick leave. It seems like a simple concept that everyone should have access to yet 61% of those on the lowest rungs of the income ladder don’t have a single paid sick day, and only 13% of the U.S. workers have some paid family leave through their employers.
It feels almost too obvious to be highlighting, but it’s an important point: Paid sick days are good for workers and they don’t cost businesses much. Compared to other developed countries, the U.S. is seriously lagging in paid leave. We are one of the few developed countries still having contentious debates about abortion, and yet when a child is born, there are few-to-no laws in place that help children and families thrive. We put businesses first, claiming that it is too costly for employers to provide paid sick days, but as research shows, that is simply not the case. In New York City specifically, businesses surveyed found little to no increase in costs when they started to provide employees with paid sick days.
There are a number of measures Congress will review in the next few months, including the “Working Families Flexibility Act,” which despite its name, gives flexibility to employers, not workers and families. Under this legislation, an employer could make an employee work overtime without paying them for the extra hours. If a worker typically works 9-5 but stays until 7 p.m., that worker can add two hours into a “bank.” Theoretically, the employee can then use his or her banked hours (up to 160) to take compensatory time off. Many workers with family responsibilities opt to earn compensatory time in case they need to take care of themselves or a family member. Under this bill, it’s the employer, and not the worker who has the final say on whether the worker can use their earned time off. An employer could deny request after request, never giving a worker the time off they worked for and avoid paying them overtime.
Then there are the promises the Trump administration has made the American public. The president claims he wants to make it possible for working parents to deduct child care costs from their taxes. While it sounds good in theory, this credit helps families that need the help the least. The Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution estimates that 70% of this credit would benefit families that earn $100,000, or more, a year. This does little to nothing to help people who are low- to middle-income — the families who need this help the most.
And finally, despite growing public support, and states and localities passing their own paid sick days laws, the HR Policy Association — a trade group of chief human resource officers from multinational companies — asked Congress to shield employers from local and paid sick day laws. The Association’s chair told Bloomberg News that companies don’t need government regulation to treat workers fairly – the “war for talent” assures they have to. But, as national data show, this “war for talent” has left many workers with no paid time off when they or their child is sick. In fact, an at-will employee can be fired for taking an unpaid sick day.
Part of the problem is this culture of “toughing” it out when you’re sick — but if your young child has the flu, a burning fever, a cough, or worse, they can’t just “tough it out,” and parents shouldn’t have to lose income or risk their job to take care of their kids. And that applies to all workers: part-time, full-time, hourly, or salaried.
There are some businesses that have taken it upon themselves to lead by example, surprisingly big tech companies are using their robust paid leave programs to attract workers and build their “socially conscious” image. But that’s not often the case at companies that employ low-wage workers. Walmart, which employs 1.5 million people in the U.S., hourly workers — even if they work full-time — are offered zero paid maternity leave – zero. It should be noted that Walmart CEO made close to $20 million last year.
To make sure that all employees have access to paid sick or family leave, and not just salaried and/or high-earners, it’s important that we rally behind legislation like the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (the FAMILY Act). This law would guarantee all workers to have just a few paid days off to take care of themselves or a loved one if they are sick.
If you’re still struggling for a last minute gift for your mom, think about how you can show up for her or another loved one in your life to fight for paid sick and family leave. There are plenty of resources for you to get involved.
Tillie McInnis is the Communications Director for the Domestic Policy Program at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.