A parent shouldn’t have to choose between caring for a sick child and earning enough to put food on the table. A mother should be able to spend time with a newborn without sacrificing her weekly wages. And a seriously ill individual shouldn’t be putting himself and the general public at risk just because he is unable to afford missing a day of work. Yet these are exact scenarios that an astonishingly large number of Americans face each and every day. These are the impossible choices American workers face without any law to protect their income when life interrupts work.
In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama brought renewed attention to the issue of paid sick and family leave. On a national level, very little progress has been made for employees since the passage of the Family Medical Leave Act in 1993. The law provides up to twelve weeks of leave for serious illness to an individual or close family member, or for the arrival of a child. The protected leave, however, is unpaid. Over two decades later very little has changed. As pointed out in a recent New Yorker article, America’s Family-Leave Disgrace, by Margaret Talbot, the United States is one of the only three countries in the world with no paid maternity-leave law.
Like many employment issues, there is a disproportionate effect on those who earn the least and work the hardest. Those who work in high-paying fields are more likely to have paid sick and family leave. Meanwhile, those who can least afford to miss a paycheck or miss an employment opportunity are the ones who are denied this basic dignity. The result is yet another burden on an already burdened class of people. Inequality is increased and solidified as lower income families are destabilized. The absence of paid protection for sick and family leaves also has a disproportionately negative effect on women. Although time with a newborn should be provided to both parents, it is particularly necessary for a woman who has just given birth. New mothers should have time to recuperate and bond with a child without having to worry about rushing back to work in order to get paid.
In California, the situation is slightly better. Much like the FMLA, the California Family Rights Act (part of the Fair Employment and Housing Act), provides employees who have been with a business employing fifty or more individuals for a period of over one year protected leave for serious illness to the individual or family member, or the birth of a child. Unpaid leave for pregnancy is also available independently or concurrently under the California Pregnancy Disability Leave Law. California Paid Family Leave does, however, provide payments (from the State Disability Fund) for wage loss of employees who take time off to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, parent or domestic partner or to bond with a child. This is a good start, but more needs to be done. The requirements of time and company size are too stringent, both under the FMLA and the California Fair Rights Act. Similarly deficient are the provisions of the California Paid Family Leave Act – usually paying just 55% of an employee’s wages for a period of just 6 weeks. Paid sick leave should be provided to all employees regardless of the size of the business. Half of an employee’s regular wage is hardly sufficient regardless of the reason for a leave. A happy and healthy workforce does more than just benefit the individual employee. Employees who are well, and who don’t live in a constant state of fear, are more productive. And society is certainly better off when public health isn’t threatened by people who have to interact with the general public when they shouldn’t even be getting out of bed.