What will it take for paid sick and family leave to be a benefit for all of us? (Photo: Getty Images/Kansas City Star/Yahoo Health)
Netflix dominated the headlines last week — not because of any potential House of Cards spoilers, but rather because of what seemed like a huge step forward when it comes to paid leave: That employees of the company would receive “unlimited” time off during the first year after the arrival of a new child.
But it turns out, the perk only pertains to salaried employees in the streaming division. Employees in the DVD segment and in corporate customer service are not included in this benefit.
The discussion around paid leave — a term that can encompass paid sick leave and paid family leave — is reaching a fever pitch in the national discourse. In January, President Obama called attention to the issue during his State of the Union address, noting that the U.S. is “the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers.” The President urged Congress to send him a bill that would give every U.S. worker the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking member of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee, introduced the Healthy Families Act this spring, outlining a plan for American workers to earn seven paid days of sick leave a year. If passed, the bill would be the first major expansion of leave policies since the passage of the Family and Medical Leave ACT (FMLA) in 1993 under President Bill Clinton, a measure that allowed workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave without losing their jobs.
Writing in an editorial for U.S. News and World Report, Murray said: “Taking care of yourself or a loved one when you’re sick should be a basic worker protection. It’s good for families, good for businesses and good for the economy.”
Joseph McCartin, PhD, a professor of history at Georgetown University and the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor housed there, says paid leave is finally gaining momentum because of a “growing sense of this being a problem.”
“Workers need this kind of protection, this kind of security — and the economy could benefit from it,” McCartin tells Yahoo Health. “It’s getting harder for businesses to argue that they cannot afford it.”
Paid leave isn’t just something that businesses can afford — it’s something that can actually improve their profits. In addition to enhancing workplace morale (and thus, productivity) it also reduces employee turnover, a major cost to businesses. Murray writes that businesses “know that when workers have economic stability with earned paid sick days, it pays off.”
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Americans want to work, McCartin says — after all, the United States is a country founded on work ethic. And while “pay has not grown in relation to productivity” in modern times, “people don’t believe they need more pay, but they do believe they need more control of their time.” This can be particularly challenging for certain sectors, particularly those working in the retail and restaurant industries.
McCartin also calls attention to the fact that for paid family and sick leave to truly impact the American economy, it needs to be enacted in a way that does not exclude large demographics of the American workforce, especially “those who are not documented but a part of our economy.” Implementing policies that account for undocumented workers would “decrease their isolation and segregation,” while failure to do so would only “increase the differences between the top and bottom of the economy,” McCartin says, further restricting opportunities for economic advancement.
“If workers feel that their employer will stick with them whether are well or ill, they will be more loyal to their employer and less likely to leave for someone else. It will costs businesses less in terms of turnover costs,” McCartin notes, adding that not having sick workers in the workplace is yet another major boon to productivity and a company’s bottom line.
Recent polling shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans of all party affiliations — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents — are in favor of paid sick days, with 73 percent adding that they believe that “the government has a responsibility to ensure employers treat employees fairly by providing them with such policies.” An additional 70 percent of those surveyed felt that current policies do not reflect the state of the modern American family and its needs.
“Parents are a child’s first teachers,” Ed Walz, vice president of the bi-partisan family and children advocacy organization First Focus — and a proponent of paid family leave — tells Yahoo Health. “The most important time for a child’s development is in the first five years. … This is the most important time for parents … to be focused on their child.”
However, it may take some work before paid family and sick leave are baked into law. American workers “cannot rely solely on the electoral system” to see policy change when it comes to paid leave, McCartin says. There will need to be “some kind of public action that helps to crystalize these ideas and work them up in the public consciousness, the way that the Walmart and fast-food workers’ one-day strikes highlighted low pay in the national conversation,” he says. When government — not only at the federal level, but also on the local level — sees that paid leave matters to the American worker, policy change can transition from talk to action.
But it’s not just the government that needs to act for a real rule change to come about: U.S. workers need to not just be allowed to take paid sick and family leave, they need to think that it’s actually OK to take it, Walz says. “If someone takes their leave to care for a parent or a child, it isn’t a bad thing, but good for our economy,” he says. “If work and family can co-exist, that is always good for our economy.”
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