The Case for Minimum Paid Leave for American Workers

Most middle-class Americans take for granted having a few weeks of vacation and sick leave each year. The majority of American workers do get some paid time off. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, three-fourths of employees receive paid vacation, and half have paid sick leave.

However, these statistics reveal a significant number of workers who do not have any paid leave, including some who have been on the job for many years. Low wage earners are less likely to have leave or other workplace benefits than high income earners. Even middle-class Americans often lack paid leave if they work part time, for a small company, or in a service or construction job.

Paid leave is essential for workers to maintain their own health and make sure their children and parents are receiving appropriate care, while they themselves remain productive members of the workforce. A majority of households are living paycheck to paycheck, according to a recent survey. Thus, workers without access to paid leave have little choice but to go to work even when they or their children are sick, and risk a major financial crisis when they simply cannot go to work because of a serious illness or other critical family need.

Given prevailing practices and the direction of trends, it is unlikely that American workers will gain the paid leave benefits they need without government action. Improving the health of our nation’s children, families, workers, and businesses will require public policy action on two fronts:

1. Establishing family leave insurance programs to provide workers with partial wages during those relatively infrequent occasions when they need extended periods of time off to care for a new child or seriously ill family member, or because of their own serious illness;

2. Establishing minimum levels for employer-provided paid leave that is available to workers annually for routine needs, such as a child’s minor illness, school meetings, dental visits, or rest and relaxation. This paper focuses on the need for minimum paid leave.

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