When We Fight, We Win – Paid Sick Days and Paid Family Leave

| Sep 21, 2023

The United States is still a country of haves and have nots when it comes to essential family-supporting benefits like paid family leave. Well, actually, we’re mostly a country of have nots – as new data out from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show. In fact, 106 million civilian workers do not have paid family leave from their employer, to welcome a new child or care for a seriously ill, injured or disabled loved one. Nearly 86 million don’t have temporary disability insurance for their own serious health condition. And unbelievably, something as basic as paid sick days remains out of reach for nearly 28 million private sector workers. It’s no wonder that paid sick days and other leave issues have been a top issue in recent contract fights and strikes by rail workers, nurses and auto workers.

For so many, not having paid leave or paid sick days means being just one illness or injury away from financial disaster – especially for women of color and their families, who due to both wage and wealth gaps are least likely to have savings and other resources to fall back on. Who gets left behind without a national standard for paid sick days or a national paid family and medical leave program? And is there any hope things could change? We took a deeper look into the data, and compared this year’s data to trends over the past decade. And while the picture is grim, there’s also reason for optimism.

Leaving Paid Leave up to Employers Alone Leaves Access Rare and Inequitable

Similar to previous years, in 2023 workers in management and professional jobs still tend to have greater access to employer-provided paid family leave (39 percent), than service workers (16 percent). The gap is even starker between the highest-paid workers (48 percent) and lowest-paid (6 percent). Still, even among the most-advantaged workers, the majority continue to lack access to paid family leave.

While the data doesn’t break out access by gender or race and ethnicity, occupational segregation means women of color are disproportionately likely to work in low-paid service sector jobs, so this data suggests racial inequities in access to paid leave are likely.

Paid leave access is also rare among workers in construction (13 percent), production (22 percent) and transportation (19 percent) – areas with a high demand for workers in light of the massive infrastructure and manufacturing investments the Biden administration is overseeing. A national paid leave program could help employers in these industries recruit and retain a more diverse workforce to fill those jobs.

Similar inequities are generally true for access to paid medical leave through employer-provided temporary disability insurance (TDI).

Insurance providers have offered TDI for decades – and still, only 41 percent of workers overall have access to it. That’s an important lesson for those who think creating a voluntary insurance market is going to solve the need for paid family leave. (Read more about what real paid leave is.)

Notably, this survey data does not count workers’ access to paid leave through state programs, which have been enacted in 14 states now, including Washington, D.C.. In fact, we have previously calculated that more workers now receive paid family leave through state programs than through employer-provided policies. Public policies work!

When We Fight, We Win – Paid Sick Days

In the private sector, 78 percent of workers still do not have paid sick days at their job – which is outrageous. But over the past decade and a half, the organizing and advocacy of workers and their allies has shrunk that percentage a lot. (San Francisco passed the first local paid sick days law in 2006, and since then 15 states and 20 more cities and counties have followed suit! Plus, since 2016 federal contractors have been required to provide paid sick days – covering 1.18 million workers – thanks to an Obama-Biden administration executive order.)

While the new data don’t look only at the impact of those policies, they do suggest that organizing works. Workers in unions (86 percent) are more likely to have paid sick days than non-union workers (77 percent). And over the years, access has increased the most in regions of the country that have passed paid sick days laws.

Still, more remains to be done. Workers and advocates in the South – historically a hotbed of both anti-labor and white supremacist movements – have faced especially high hurdles to winning paid sick days. And all across the country, access is still lowest for workers with the lowest wages (39 percent) and workers in service jobs (61 percent).

Today’s new data show that there’s a lot of work to do. But local and state progress has proven what works. Based on those models, the Healthy Family Act would expand a paid sick days guarantee nationally, and the FAMILY Act would establish a national paid family and medical leave program. As more and more of us come together to demand change, we are creating a better economy in which all workers have what they need to care for themselves and their loved ones.