Too often, workers have to choose between taking time off for illness and not receiving the wages they desperately need or showing up for their job despite their poor health or the poor health of someone they care for. For workers who support families, these decisions are even more difficult. In the absence of guaranteed leave for sickness or family obligations, workers fear losing their jobs or sacrificing their paycheck. Fortunately, there are viable solutions. Paid sick days help workers maintain a work-life balance, and an increase in the minimum wage would put more money in the pockets of low-income workers. We need to support policies that allow workers to take time off when they are sick and earn wages that keep their families out of poverty. But recent legislation that passed the U.S. House is a misguided attempt to give employers the ultimate deciding power and exploit low-wage workers.
Paid Sick Days
Paid sick days ensure workers are not forced to choose between their health and their paychecks. Hourly-paid employees in particular are made to feel that taking time off will jeopardize their jobs, and they often go to work despite their illness. This is called “presenteeism” and is estimated to cost our national economy $160 billion in lost productivity each year. Those who show up sick to work are often the same people who prepare our food or care for children—nearly three in four food service workers and child care workers don’t have access to paid sick leave, putting public health at risk (pg. 2-3). No one wants to work while seriously ill, but people who are supporting themselves or their families need every paid hour of work they can get. Unpaid time off has serious implications for the economic security of workers and their families. Just three and a half days of missed work is equivalent to an entire month’s groceries for the average family (pg. 1). Paid sick days clearly benefit workers, but they also help employers by reducing turnover, which can be very expensive. Five cities and one state have already introduced their own paid sick days laws with great success. San Francisco instituted a paid sick days law in 2007 and saw greater increase in job growth as well as business growth compared to the five neighboring counties. The movement in support of paid sick days laws is making progress in states across the country. Find out what is going on in your state. Additional information and resources are available here.
The Healthy Families Act
Now pending in Congress, the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1286/S. 631) would set a national paid sick days standard, allowing workers to earn up to seven paid sick days each year. The Healthy Families Act would guarantee paid sick days for most workers, allowing workers in businesses with 15 or more employees to earn up to seven paid sick days each year. These sick days could be used to recover from illness, access preventative care, or care for a sick family member, which is a crucial problem for all working parents. The bill would give victims of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault the opportunity to use their paid sick days to recover or get much needed assistance.
The Fair Minimum Wage Act
The Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 1010/S. 460) would help families prosper—nearly 28 percent of workers who would be affected by an increase are parents (pg. 8). Currently, a parent who works full-time, year-round at a job that pays federal minimum wage will not earn enough to be above the federal poverty line (pg. 3). We need to help families struggling to provide for children by paying workers wages they can actually live on. The Fair Minimum Wage Act would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 via three incremental increases of $0.95, and then index it to inflation. To put the present (and shockingly low) minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in perspective, if minimum wage had increased at the same rate of the average worker’s wages, it would be about $10.50 today (pg. 4). Leaving minimum wage workers behind will increase income inequality and keep families in a cycle of poverty.
The Paycheck Fairness Act
Women workers and their families would also benefit from the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 84), which would target discriminatory pay practices that contribute to the persistent wage gap between women and men. The Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen the Equal Pay Act to make investigation into employment discrimination against women more effective. Women earn, on average, $11,084 less annually than their male counterparts. This is especially hard on single mothers but also hurts two-parent families who rely on both parents’ wages.
The Working Families Flexibility Act
Unfortunately, the only proposal that has made progress in Congress so far is the Republican-backed Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 (H.R. 1406), a bill with a misleading name that would actually undermine the Fair Labor Standards Act and force workers to spend more time away from their families by increasing overtime hours without paying workers overtime wages. The Working Families Flexibility Act, despite being bad news for all working families, passed the House on May 8th with a vote of 223-204 (with only three Democrats voting for the bill). The legislation allows employers the opportunity to give workers paid time off for overtime hours worked, instead of paying workers the overtime pay they have earned. Unfortunately, instead of making workers’ schedules more flexible, the bill will cause employers to increase workers’ overtime hours. Since they do not have to compensate workers for up to 13 months, the bill hands employers an interest-free loan for the amount of money they would have had to pay as time and a half wages. Because hourly-paid workers in today’s economy cannot say no to their employers without putting their jobs at risk, employees will be forced to choose comp time instead of pay. Provisions of the bill give employers all the power, including decisions as to when workers can take their comp time (this can be refused if it “unduly disrupts the operations of the employer”), and employers can even cash out comp time for wages if they choose to do so, leaving workers who had planned on having time off with no options. The bill provides no recourse for requests for time off that are unfairly delayed or denied and no protection for employees when businesses collapse or go bankrupt.
Take Action and Contact Members of Congress!
Contact both of your U.S. senators and your U.S. representative and let them know that you support the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1286/S. 631), the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 84), and the Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 1010/S. 460) and would like to see all these bills move forward. In addition, let your senators know that you oppose the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 (H.R. 1406). Hopefully, this bill will not move in the Senate; however you should still let your senators know that you oppose this legislation. For Illinois residents, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) is a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (also known as the HELP Committee), which all of these bills have to pass through, so contacting Senator Kirk is particularly important. Thanks for taking action!
For more information, please contact Wendy Pollack, director, Women’s Law and Policy Project, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.