A Step in the Right Direction

| Dec 17, 2010

Our country needs more adequate, reasonable and flexible sick leave policies. Tens of millions of workers in this country don’t have a single paid sick day. Many of those who do can’t use them to meet their family’s health needs. As a result, kids and their parents are forced to go to school or work sick, contagion spreads, and public health suffers. That’s why it is encouraging to see the federal government leading the way by updating its leave policies with a new rule that will make it easier for federal workers to recover from illness and care for their families. It is a welcome step in the right direction.

Under the new rule, which goes into effect January 3rd, federal agencies can grant up to 30 days of advanced leave for employees to deal with their own serious illness, the birth of a child, exposure to communicable disease, or to care for a family member with a serious health condition.

For the federal workers who benefit, the new rule will address some of the key challenges they have been dealing with for years. It represents a significant improvement for more than one million federal employees and their families, but it is just a first (and in some ways, incomplete) step toward acknowledging the realities of our society and the demands on today’s working parents.

Serious illness and family emergencies are unpredictable. None of us can predict when a child will break an arm, the flu will strike, or chemotherapy treatments will be needed. Health needs don’t fit into neat packages and emergencies don’t always occur when a worker has accrued enough sick leave to deal with them. In these cases, the ability to take advanced leave is critical. The new rule will help. It sets an important standard, but advanced leave policies should be required of all agencies—not just allowed.

Paid leave is vital to preventing the spread of communicable disease. Last year, during the H1N1 pandemic, many schools and day care centers closed to prevent the spread of infection. But most parents couldn’t take unscheduled time off to stay home with their children without risking the loss of their job or quickly using up other forms of leave. This new federal rule would allow parents to take up to 13 days to care for a child who needs to be at home, but only if a child is actually exposed to the disease and not when a school or day care center closes to prevent an outbreak of infection.

The new rule also sets a high bar—perhaps too high—for taking leave due to exposure to communicable diseases that could affect the health of others. By its definition, last year’s H1N1 influenza outbreak would not qualify because it wasn’t serious enough to require quarantine. The goal should be to stop the spread of disease, not wait until we have a full blown pandemic to exercise due caution.

As an employer, the federal government is in a unique position to lead by example and set the highest workplace standards. This new rule is a significant and important step forward. It acknowledges the key role of paid sick leave—both short and long term—in caring for our families and protecting our nation’s health. But there is still much to be done. Federal employees still lag behind many private sector employees in access to paid leave to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill family member. And there are tens of millions of private sector workers who still lack any paid leave to meet their family health needs. It’s time for our nation to take greater steps toward the responsible and family-friendly policies all workers need.