Mark is a former elementary school classmate of my son’s who recently interviewed me as part of a mentorship program. He made this comment, then thanked me for my role in passing Seattle’s paid sick and safe leave law.
During Mark’s childhood, his father was back in the Philippines, and his mother didn’t have sick leave or a car. Picking him up when he got sick at school would have required taking two buses both to and from the school and losing income the family badly needed.
My own sons were luckier. As a well educated professional, I had the flexibility and benefits to leave work when that dreaded call from the school nurse came and stay home for the next couple days while my child recovered.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, four in ten private sector U.S. workers have no paid sick leave. For workers in the lowest tenth of earnings, that figure doubles. Restaurant workers and others with high degrees of public contact are among the least likely to have access to paid time off for illness.
Protecting public health, building family economic security, and promoting the health and school success of kids like Mark are goals that have motivated campaigns for paid sick days across the country.
While most highly developed countries guarantee all workers the right to sick leave, along with paid vacations and maternity leave, the U.S. does not. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, provides up to twelve weeks of job-protected unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child or the serious health condition of the worker or a close family member. But even if people could afford the time off without pay, neither the flu nor a child’s fever count as “serious.” Preventive care isn’t covered either. Plus FMLA doesn’t apply to the over 40% of workers because they are in companies with fewer than 50 employees, or changed jobs in the previous year, or work less than 1,250 hours a year – about 24 hours per week.
Today men and women comprise nearly equal numbers of the American workforce, even if pay and family care responsibilities remain far from equal. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, two-thirds of new mothers now return to paid work within a year after giving birth, and 71% of school-age kids have all parents in the workforce. And an aging population means that more workers than ever have care responsibilities for an aging parent or partner – or their own health complications.
Clearly America’s workplace policies need an update. While Congress has been dragging its feet, cities and states are making progress, especially on paid sick leave.
San Francisco was the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to give workers a right to paid sick days in 2006. Washington, DC and Milwaukee came next, but Milwaukee’s initiative – which passed with 70% of the vote – was held up in court, then thrown out by the state legislature under Scott Walker’s leadership. In 2012, Connecticut became the first state and Seattle the third city to implement a paid sick leave law. Since then, Portland, OR, New York City, Seattle, WA, Newark, and Jersey City have also passed new laws.
Seattle’s campaign to pass the ordinance was led by my organization, the Economic Opportunity Institute. As with other campaigns, the coalition of supporters included labor leaders, women, health professionals, seniors, and children’s advocates – including school nurses and childcare teachers. A number of small business owners also supported the law, and several even helped draft the policy.
Data from a recently released University of Washington evaluation shows Seattle’s sick leave law has extended paid leave to tens of thousands, and 70% of Seattle business owners support the law. Since implementation, Seattle’s economy has grown faster than nearby cities. Studies from Connecticut, San Francisco and other jurisdictions that have enacted sick leave laws show similar results.
With this record of success and public opinion polls showing consistently strong support, campaigns for paid sick leave are underway in cities and states across the country, from Vermont and Massachusetts to Eugene and Tacoma. Support in Congress for the Healthy Families Act also continues to build.
We need this national movement. If popularity and commonsense alone were enough, paid sick days would be already in place nationwide, supporting working women and their families. But powerful lobbying groups like the National Restaurant Association fight hard against these workplace standards. Even in a progressive city like Seattle, it took nearly two years and an aggressive, well-organized campaign to convince the City Council to act.
We all need to keep fighting until all working women – like Mark’s mom – are able to care for their families and provide for them. And we’ll all be healthier as a result.
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