Press Release
Debra Ness Testifies before Senate HELP Committee, Subcommittee on Children and Families

“Good morning Chairman Dodd, Ranking Member Alexander, members of the Subcommittee and my fellow panelists. Thank you for inviting us to talk about the policies America’s workers urgently need during this H1N1 flu emergency. I am Debra Ness, President of the National Partnership for Women & Families, a non-profit, non-partisan advocacy group. I am here to testify in support of the Healthy Families Act — groundbreaking legislation that is tremendously important to working people across the nation, especially during this national H1N1 emergency.

The National Partnership leads broad-based coalitions that support paid sick days. I am testifying on behalf of the millions of individuals represented by the civil rights, women’s, disability, children’s, faith-based, community and anti-poverty groups, labor unions, health agencies and researchers that comprise these coalitions. We all urge you to quickly pass the Healthy Families Act — the bill now before Congress that offers the best solution to this problem.

What is the problem? Quite simply, that millions of hard-working people in this country have no paid sick days. Forty-eight percent of private-sector workers, and four in five low-wage workers — most of them women — have no paid sick days at all. At a time when the H1N1 virus has infected millions, killed more than 100 children, and is “widespread” in 48 states, our failure to provide a minimum standard of paid sick days is exacting a terrible toll.

Over the past few months, as this national emergency has progressed, experts and public officials — from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to the President of the United States — have told us to stay home and keep sick children home to prevent the spread of the virus. That is excellent advice. But unfortunately, taking that advice simply isn’t an option for millions of workers. They want to do the right thing. They want to do all they can to prevent the spread of H1N1. But for them, staying home means risking their paychecks and even their jobs because they have no job-protected, paid sick days.

Working people need paid time off to recover from H1N1 and care for sick family members, and prevent further spread of the virus. Caregivers in particular need paid sick days. The highest H1N1 virus attack rate is among children and youth, many of whom need a parent to care for them when they get sick. That’s why the lack of paid sick days is particularly challenging for working women, who have primary responsibility for child as well as elder care.

Our failure to provide a minimum standard of paid sick days also is putting our public health at risk. Only 22 percent of food and public accommodation workers have paid sick days. Workers in child care centers and nursing homes disproportionately lack paid sick days. They are forced to work when they are sick, and in so doing put coworkers and the public at risk for contagion.

While the need for paid sick days is particularly compelling during the H1N1 flu emergency, the reality is that working families struggled without paid sick days prior to this emergency, and will continue to do so until Congress takes action. Every year the seasonal flu and other illnesses strike millions of us, and every year the failure to let workers earn paid sick days puts the economic security of millions of families at risk.

I don’t need to tell you how devastating the current economic crisis has been for families. Many families that once relied on two incomes are now managing on one income — or no income at all. Illness complicates their struggles. A survey commissioned last year by the Public Welfare Foundation found that one in six workers reported that they or a family member had been fired, suspended, punished or threatened with being fired for taking time off due to personal illness, or to care for a sick relative. That was before H1N1 and the recession. The pressures are worse now. Another survey conducted just last month found that five in six workers say the recession, which we all know has cost the nation so many jobs, is creating pressure to show up for work, even when they are sick.

In a just, humane society, that’s not a choice workers are forced to make. Now more than ever, Mr. Chairman and members of this Subcommittee, we need a minimum standard of paid sick days so that taking time off for H1N1 flu — or another illness — will not lead to financial disaster for families.

Paid sick days also are good for businesses. Responsible employers know that when they take care of workers, workers stay on the job. They know that workers with paid time off are loyal and productive. They know that keeping trained workers on the job is less expensive than replacing them. And they know that paid sick days reduce “presenteeism” and lead to healthier workplaces.

Like the minimum wage, America needs a federal minimum standard of paid sick days that protects all employees. The Healthy Families Act would let workers earn up to seven paid sick days a year to recover from short-term illness, care for a sick family member, or seek routine medical care or assistance related to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

Congress should waste no time in passing this bill, so working people in this country can earn paid time off and help prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus and other illnesses, without jeopardizing their economic security.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify here today. We look forward to working with you to pass the Healthy Families Act.”

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About the National Partnership for Women & Families

The National Partnership for Women & Families is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to promoting fairness in the workplace, reproductive health and rights, access to quality, affordable health care and policies that help all people meet the dual demands of work and family.

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