Advancing Paid Sick Days and Paid Family Leave

Last month, when California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Health Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014 into law, he made his state the second in the nation with a law mandating paid sick days. In 2011, Connecticut became the first state to require that employers let workers earn and use paid sick time – although, it only applies to businesses with 50 or more employees. California’s new law, which takes effect July 1, 2015, exempts some classes of workers but otherwise applies to all employers with at least one employee.

In November, Massachusetts voters will decide whether to add their state to the list of those with paid-sick-days requirements (Kim wrote about this in August). The list of cities with laws requiring paid sick days has been growing steadily, and currently includes San Francisco, CA; Washington, DC; Seattle, WA; Portland, OR; New York City; Jersey City, NJ; Newark, NJ; Eugene, OR; San Diego, CA; and Passiac, NJ.

Paid sick days are important for eliminating the difficult choice that many workers face between staying home to recover from an illness (or care for a sick child) and dragging themselves into work because they need the money. When workers can take paid sick time, they’re less likely to spread flu or other diseases to their co-workers. The current laws generally allow workers to earn and use between three and five paid sick days each year.

A few days off work might be sufficient to get over the worst of a cold or flu, but it’s not enough for workers to address their own serious health conditions, care for a family member with a serious health issue, or bond with a new baby or a new adopted or foster child. In such situations, workers need paid medical or family leave, but here in the US, many don’t have it. Women are more likely to be primary caregivers, so they bear more of the burden from insufficient paid leave. The existing federal law, the Family and Medical Leave Act, only allows for unpaid leave, and only covers about 60% of US workers. The FAMILY Act has been introduced to allow for paid family leave for all employees nationwide, but its prospects seem dim at this point.

On paid family leave, too, a few states have led the way. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have all established social insurance systems that use payroll-tax funds to replace a portion of workers’ salaries for several weeks when they miss work to care for new children or seriously ill family members.

Last week, the US Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau and Employment and Training Administration awarded grants to three states and DC to fund studies on paid leave. The DOL news release explains:

It’s fitting that Rhode Island is one of the grant recipients, given that this state launched its family-leave insurance program earlier this year. And days after the federal grants were announced, the DC government began offering up to eight weeks of paid family leave to its employees.

Momentum is building for policies that allow workers to care for their own health and that of their family members without risking financial ruin.

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