Expanded Paid Leave for Workers
There have been calls for expanded paid leave for workers in this nation for years. Perhaps the two most frequently mentioned forms of such leave pertain to sick leave and maternity/family leave. The United States has fallen behind many nations in its refusal to make such practices the norm in its workplaces.
Many employers do provide for paid sick leave for their workers. Doing so is beneficial to the employees, employers and the general public for a number of reasons. If the worker has a job that deals with other people ( co-workers, customers, the general public, etc.), exposing them to the illness may spread it further. The productivity of the sick person will normally suffer, as will the future productivity of any coworkers who become ill as a result of contact with them. Spreading the illness to customers or the general public would certainly provide bad publicity for the employer, at the very least.
It is difficult to expect an employee who is barely scraping by on the wages they earn to begin with to voluntarily lose work hours to stay at home nursing a cold, flu or other illness. They can’t afford to lose the pay. Since many employers obviously refuse to pay employees for not working for any reason unless they are legally obligated to do so, the right thing to do is obligate at least a minimal amount of paid sick leave for employees. The law already allows employers to pay wages that provide substandard income for many employees – even many of whom work fulltime. Refusal to provide sick time is just adding insult to injury (or sickness, as the case may be).
Most people who have jobs where they get paid a decent wage or salary with decent benefits also get paid sick leave. One place I worked for allowed employees to earn one day per month and accumulate the time indefinitely. The military gives unlimited paid sick leave – as long as its doctors find it is required for the health of the soldier. Some places even buy back accumulated time if the worker so desires. Other employers are not so generous. They are often dealing with employees closer to the bottom of the pay scale – working close to the already inadequate wage that the government has designated as minimum. In some cases, such as wait staff at many restaurants, they make even less than that, depending on the largesse of customers to make up the difference through voluntary tips. Sneezing or coughing into someone’s meal is not likely to encourage generous tipping. (Tipping is a practice that needs to end, but that’s a subject for another essay).
Common practice in retail these days is to employ a substantial percentage of workers as part-time employees with pro-rated or no benefits. An example would be discount chains like Dollar General and Family Dollar (where I have personal experience). Often, the only person in one of these stores who gets any paid sick leave is the store manager. Assistant managers and sales associates – whether fulltime or part-time, get none. Forget about paid holidays off for most of these workers, as well. I’m not personally familiar with fast-food or other restaurant or hotel employees, but since the law allows employers in most states and cities to not offer employees such benefits, many if not most do not.
Most employers will pay the lowest wages and provide the fewest benefits that the law will allow, unless prevailing market conditions force them to pay more to attract sufficient workers to maintain their business and turn a profit. Unfortunately, this situation, along with an organized labor movement which has been decimated in recent decades by anti-labor legislation at the national, local and state levels has been deteriorating to the point where there are now millions of workers either unemployed or underemployed to the point where they cannot make ends meet with one or even two fulltime breadwinners in the home.
Pro-business opponents of providing better wages and benefits for all workers – so that they may meet the needs of their families for food, shelter, clothing, health care, etc,. come across as extremely uncaring to many of us. Employers who provide their workers with these benefits and still make a hefty profit stand out due to their rarity, but we do know they exist. Union membership obviously helps – in those jobs and locations where they have not been decimated by anti-labor legislation. Taking advantage of the fact that people are so hurting for a job – any job – even if it doesn’t pay enough for a decent standard of living does not make these employers good “job creators” in my opinion, but rather good wage-slave drivers. A company that pays its lowest level employees minimum wage or less while paying their CEO and other executives seven or eight figure salaries with perks and benefits the average worker dare not even dream of is a morally bankrupt employer, whatever the corporate bottom line may read. Workers’ lives and wellbeing must become a bit higher on the priority list relative to shareholders for the system to become more fair.
For a country that prides itself on “family values” ours does not seem willing to put its money where its mouth is. During the 2012 campaign, when aspersions were cast upon Anne Romney for being a stay-at-home mother to her sons while they grew up, all hell broke loose. She was performing a socially important function and should be praised, not reviled for it. However, when it comes to single parents or parents of lower socio-economic levels, they are often expected to work multiple jobs more than 40 hours a week while simultaneously finding good childcare and raising their children. The days of the single-income middle class family is pretty much a thing of the past. Why the sympathy for the wealthy stay-at-home parent at the same time as making it economically impossible for lower income people to spend more than a few waking hours a day actually raising their children? This is particularly obvious for the case of parents with very young children and the issue of parental leave – or in the case of the US, the absence of it.
As for maternity leave, the US is one of the few modern economies that does not mandate paid leave for employees. Some use accumulated sick leave for income in the interim, but all that is required by law at this point is the right to have an equivalent job available when the employee returns from unpaid maternity leave. Compared with other advanced economies, this is antiquated, to say the least. It also contributes further to the demonstrated lack of gender equality in the workplace. Women who choose to raise children often fall behind male peers in the workforce while doing so. Advancement opportunities may be missed. Pay equity has been identified as a problem for decades, but still has not been adequately addressed by legislation.
The fact is, our laws have been written to serve the interests of the employers and corporate shareholders over those of their workers for way too long. Those spouting platitudes about the virtue of family values, including providing quality time for parents to nurture their children through to adulthood, go out of their way to make it increasingly difficult for them to do so. How many single-income families exist today compared to 50 years ago? Growing income and wealth inequality has eroded the ability of most Americans today to maintain the standards of living available when today’s parents were children. Mass incarceration of young males for relatively minor non-violent offenses also contributes to the number of single mothers raising children alone. An economic system that has become so skewed in the way it rewards “work” that a few live in luxury and many are just a paycheck or a natural catastrophe away from homelessness, is not only unequal but grossly unfair.
Our political and economic leaders cannot have it both ways. If they want to promote good parenting and responsible family living, they need to make it more attainable for more people. Making money needs to not be so difficult that it leads to the sorts of lifestyles where parents must chose between working 50 hours a week for minimal pay with few benefits and not being able to provide decent living conditions for their families. Stop eroding benefits and wages and start adding to them to provide more social and economic equality. Mandatory paid sick leave and family leave would certainly be a step in the right direction. These steps have already been taken elsewhere without society totally falling apart. Ours wouldn’t suffer that badly, either. Take care of the workers so they can take care of their families adequately, and some of the social safety net programs that the wealthy takers grumble so much about having to pay for may become less costly in the long run. Maybe they could start looking past the short-term bottom line for a social and economic system that is both more humane and more sustainable on a long-term basis.
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