More than 200 small business owners, working parents, labor leaders, women’s rights activists and other members of the diverse coalition fighting for family-friendly policy advances like paid sick days and family leave insurance convened in Washington, D.C., this week to celebrate a record year of victories in 2011 and plan for the year ahead. As Americans across the country are focused on access to quality jobs and improving the economy, groups at the state and local levels have been able to win the right to earn paid sick days for hundreds of thousands of workers in Connecticut, Seattle and Philadelphia. This is a common-sense policy solution that helps businesses, families and communities. Energy behind these policies has been growing. These policies enjoy strong support from voters across the country and are bolstered by national attention to the roles women play in the workplace and in families.
“Now that workers can earn sick time in Seattle, hardworking parents won’t be forced to choose between taking care of a sick child and keeping their jobs,” said Tasha West-Baker, a Seattle mother of four and member of UFCW Local 21 who works as a cashier at a local supermarket. “I’ve gone to work handling people’s groceries with a viral respiratory infection because I couldn’t afford to miss a day’s wages. For families like mine who are living paycheck to paycheck, paid sick time can make the difference between living with financial security and losing their jobs.”
Across the country, broad and diverse coalitions are fighting at the state, city and county levels for common-sense policies like paid sick days and family leave insurance that strengthen financial security for working families, support small businesses, keep workers in their jobs, and advance public health. Last June, Connecticut passed the first statewide paid sick days law. Seattle and Philadelphia City Councils both passed paid sick days laws in the fall, a paid sick days bill in the Massachusetts state legislature drew endorsements from more than 45 economists, and the paid sick days bill in New York City has the support of a veto-proof majority in the City Council and growing support from small business leaders. A broad-based coalition of advocates and small businesses in Orange County, Florida is launching a campaign for earned sick time—which would boost tourism and service-industry economies—as is the coalition in Portland, Oregon. State legislation in Georgia that would enable workers to use sick time to care for their loved ones is moving forward with bipartisan support.
In addition, California families are about to celebrate 10 years with the nation’s first family leave insurance law, which enables more than 13 million working Californians to receive up to 55 percent of their wages for six weeks while they provide care for a family member with a serious health condition or care for a newborn. Meanwhile, a new study has shown that since 2009, more than 80,000 families have benefitted from New Jersey‘s family leave insurance program, which also has strong support from businesses in the state. In June, legislators in New York state introduced a statewide family leave insurance bill.
In Washington, D.C., this week, as part of a national Day of Action to support earned paid sick days and family and medical leave insurance, the national work-family coalition honored House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for her leadership in fighting for working women and men across the country. Senator Tom Harkin, a champion for working families and chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, spoke to activists at the summit. Harkin is the lead Senate sponsor of the Healthy Families Act and the Rebuild America Act, each of which would establish a federal paid sick days standard. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, spoke at the summit’s opening plenary about the importance of advancing family-friendly policies. Latifa Lyles, acting director of the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau and Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, also addressed summit participants.
Business owner Tony Fuentes and his wife, who opened a baby and maternity supplies store in 2004, allow workers in their first year to earn two weeks of paid time off. “When people come to work we don’t want them to be sick and spreading illnesses among the staff or worrying all day about a child who is sick at home,” said Fuentes, who spoke at the Pelosi/Harkin event. He believes the policy has had a “tremendous impact” on the business’ growth and stability, including reducing employee turnover. “We have employees who have been with us for over five years, which means expenses for hiring and training new workers are extremely low,” says Fuentes. “I attribute that in large part to our family-friendly policies.”
The summit’s Day of Action included meetings with members of Congress from both parties. Advocates, small business owners and workers urged their representatives to support federal paid sick days legislation (the Healthy Families Act, H.R. 1876, S. 984), adopt a federal family and medical leave insurance program, and include a state paid leave fund in next year’s budget. They delivered a petition signed by more than 46,000 people who support a national paid leave insurance program. The Healthy Families Act would establish a national earned paid sick days standard that would prevent 30 million U.S. workers who don’t have paid sick days from being forced to choose between their family’s health and their financial security. The State Paid Leave Fund is a proposed grant program through the U.S. Department of Labor that would allow states to develop and implement paid leave insurance programs that workers could access following the birth of a child or to care for ailing family members.
The United States is one of just four countries in the world where parents do not have legally protected paid maternity leave, and a report from the US Census Bureau shows that nationwide, only about half of first-time mothers have access to any pay during leave following the birth of a child. Even with the 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act, nearly three million eligible workers each year who need leave to care for their health or the health of a loved one do not take it because they cannot afford to take time off without pay. Nearly nine percent of parents who do take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act are forced to rely on public assistance to keep food on the table. Nationwide, nearly 40 million private sector workers have no access to paid sick days, turning common ailments into a crisis for millions of families.