A Bittersweet Labor Day

| Aug 30, 2013

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post

For more than a century, Labor Day has been a time to pay tribute to the enormous contributions of working people in this country. It is also a time for those of us who seek fairness and equality for all workers to consider how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go. This year in particular, these reflections seem bittersweet: It is clear that we have much to celebrate, but there is also much still to do.

On the “sweet” side, this year marks milestone anniversaries of several groundbreaking laws that support America’s workers. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the federal minimum wage and outlawed child labor, turned 75. The Equal Pay Act, which promotes equal pay for equal work, turned 50. The nation commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which made discrimination against pregnant workers illegal, will turn 35.

And the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) —  the nation’s first and only law designed to help women and men meet the dual demands of work and family —  turned 20. The law has been used more than 100 million times, and it has significantly changed the culture of our nation and its workplaces for the better.

But, on the “bitter” side, we have seen dramatic changes in our workforce and our public policies have not kept pace. Women are nearly half the country’s workers and are breadwinners in two-thirds of families. Yet, as a new analysis from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics makes painfully clear, tens of millions of women —  and men —  still have no access to even the basic supports they need to manage job and family. And progress is happening at a glacial pace.

According to the report, from 1992 to 2012, access to paid sick days for private sector workers increased by just 11 percentage points, and the number of days people are able to earn actually decreased. To make matters worse, this increase is in part due to a rise in the number of professional or “white-collar” jobs, rather than significant policy or culture change. Overall, 39 percent of private sector workers in this country cannot earn a single paid sick day —  and many of them are the workers who need this protection most because of low wages, few benefits and frequent public contact.

The analysis also reveals changes in access to paid family leave, or paid time off to care for a newborn, newly adopted child or an ill loved one. According to the report, just 11 percent of all private sector workers had access to paid family leave in 2012. This is up from 1992 when just two and one percent of workers had access to paid maternity and paternity leave, respectively — but it is far from acceptable. And it puts the health and financial stability of too many families in jeopardy and damages our economy.

Fortunately, some states and cities have taken their own action to increase access to these policies —  and this remarkable progress is something to celebrate this Labor Day. In March, Portland became the fourth city to guarantee workers the right to earn paid sick days. In June, New York City followed suit. In July, Rhode Island became the third state to establish a paid family leave program. And from Connecticut to Oregon, progress on family friendly policies and protections is sweeping the nation.

These victories create momentum, but what the nation needs most are federal standards that support workers and their families, no matter where they live. The Healthy Families Act would establish a much needed national paid sick days standard, efforts to update the FMLA would make job-protected leave available to more people for more reasons, and a forthcoming proposal for a national paid leave insurance program would enable workers to take paid time off to address serious illnesses or to care for new babies. Congress should pass these important measures this year.

This Labor Day weekend, let’s pay tribute to the sweet victories that have shown the kind of change that is possible when workers, businesses, advocates and lawmakers come together. And then next week and beyond, let’s turn our frustrations with the status quo into meaningful progress.