In Focus

May 12, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

Paid Sick Days and Paid Family Leave: Just What the Doctor Ordered for National Women’s Health Week

By Felicia Onuma

As we celebrate National Women’s Health Week (NWHW) this week (May 10-16, 2015), advocates, policymakers, and others will mark the progress made in improving health care for women. One sometimes overlooked, but critical, ingredient to health care is access to paid sick time and paid family and medical leave. These worker protections ensure that workers have the time to see their health care providers and attend to their health needs.  Today, in honor of NWHW, CLASP is releasing a brief on the importance of paid leave to preventive health care.

NWHW was instituted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health in 1999 to draw attention to strategies that help women lead healthier, longer, and safer lives. One critical aspect of achieving these goals is increasing routine health checkups and screenings for women in order to prevent illnesses, diseases, and other health problems—or at least detect them at an early stage when treatment is most likely to be effective. Yet, without paid leave, this avenue to better health may be a nonstarter for far too many women.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) an increasing number of Americans, especially low-income earners, now have access to health care. According to most recent data from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 16.4 million Americans who were previously uninsured have gained coverage since the ACA took effect. Besides expanding health care access, one particularly welcome aspect of this health care reform law is that it covers 100 percent of preventive care for women’s health. This means that women who seek a wide variety of preventive services, ranging from mammograms and well-woman visits to contraception, can get them without any without any out-of-pocket expenses.

Despite this important legal step forward in access to preventive care,  too many women do not have take the time they need to actually get these services. With our country’s labor standards seriously lagging behind those in much of the rest of the world, an inordinate number of Americans cannot take time away from work to reap the benefits of this reform. Today, more than 40 million workers in the U.S. (39 percent) are without access to paid sick days and nearly 95 million workers (87 percent) have no paid family leave. Among low-wage workers earning $15,000 or less per year, 80 percent do not have paid sick days. Similarly, 80 percent of part-time workers working fewer than 20 hours per week do not have paid sick days.

Lack of access to earned sick days impedes many women from heeding the advice of medical practitioners to seek preventive health care. In a 2014 study, researchers found that women without sick leave were 12 percent less likely to undergo breast cancer screening than women with sick leave. According to HHS, nearly 10 percent of women who delayed prenatal care were unable to take time off work or school to obtain medical care. Furthermore, those with an insufficient amount of sick days usually opt to save their only available leave to tend to their children, often times skipping or delaying care for themselves.

For their own or a family member’s longer-term illness, or to welcome a new baby, about 60 percent of workers have access to unpaid job protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). However, even for those who qualify for FMLA leave, the financial cost of taking unpaid time off is often impossible to bear. Among workers with unpaid FMLA leave, 52 percent deferred care and 50 percent chose to forgo care altogether because they could not afford to take leave or were fearful of losing their jobs.  

Fortunately, a growing number of states and cities – 21 jurisdictions – have now passed paid sick days laws. Three states have enacted paid family leave programs. And a growing number of states, cities, and even counties are providing their own public employees with paid family and medical leave. Dozens of campaigns to pass paid sick days and paid family leave at the national, state, and city level are gaining momentum around the country.  This important movement forward is worth celebrating this National Women’s Health Week. At the same time, this occasion presents an opportunity to step up the intensity of our calls for further action on paid leave. It’s just what the doctor ordered for women’s health, and for the nation.

Read CLASP’s brief on paid leave and preventive health care >>

Apr 15, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

One year later, the results of Jersey City’s Earned Sick Days law are promising

By Felicia J. Onuma

One year after Jersey City’s earned sick days ordinance took effect, the verdict is in: workers and business are both winning big. Contrary to opponents’ predictions, a new study shows that more than one-third of employers have experienced higher employee productivity, made better-quality hires, and had less employee turnover since implementing the law. Earned Sick Days in Jersey City: A Study of Employers and Employees at Year One, published by Rutgers’ Center for Women and Work, echoes the findings of numerous other reports on the effects of earned sick days laws on employers.

In September 2013, Jersey City became the first jurisdiction in New Jersey to adopt an earned sick days ordinance. The law, which took effect in January 2014, enables workers in businesses with 10 or more employees to earn up to 5 paid sick days each year. Workers in businesses with 9 or fewer employees can earn up to five unpaid sick days.

For most Jersey City businesses, compliance with the law has not been detrimental. Most employers have observed little change in employee behavior. Moreover, many have noted significant benefits. More than 92 percent of employers reported no change in the use of paid sick days following implementation of the law; another 4 percent reported that their employees were taking fewer sick days. More than one-third of employers reported more productivity, less turnover, and improved quality of new hires.

As expected, Jersey City’s law is also helping workers. More than half of Jersey City employees reported earning at least one sick day since the law took effect. The percentage is even higher (60 percent) among workers who have been with the same employer for more than a year. Furthermore, nearly 72 percent of employees who had more sick days due to the law reported higher job satisfaction. 

Jersey City’s experience is not unique. In other jurisdictions with sick leave laws, the majority of employers are complying with standards and reaping their benefits. In San Francisco and  Connecticut, 82 percent and 93 percent of employers, respectively, provide paid sick time to their employees as required by law. Further, the majority of San Francisco and Connecticut employers, as well as those in Seattle, reported no change in costs, profitability, customer service, or employee morale due to earned sick days standards.

New Jersey municipalities are leading the charge on sick days nationwide. Across the state, Jersey City and seven other cities (Newark, Passaic, East Orange, Patterson, Irvington, Trenton, and Montclair), have implemented earned sick days laws. This report on Jersey City’s experience offers encouragement and insight to other jurisdictions as they work to implement their own laws.

Apr 10, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

Left on Their Own: New Study Shows Unemployment Benefits Often Elude Family Caregivers

By Liz Ben-Ishai

A new report from AARP, CLASP, and National Employment Law Project (NELP) shines a light on the opportunities and shortcomings of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits as a support system for people who seek work after leaving their jobs to care for sick or disabled family members. The report, Access to Unemployment Insurance Benefits for Family Caregivers, combines legal analysis of state UI rules and in-depth interviews with UI agency officials for a comprehensive overview of the issues. It finds that, though some states have UI rules in place to accommodate family caregivers, the current system is falling short for many workers, as a result of both outdated rules and improper implementation.

The story of Laura, a worker in Arizona, provides a window into the implications of the policy findings. Like so many adults in the U.S., Laura lost her parents after an extended period of caregiving. The care Laura provided was invaluable to her parents, but came at a high price to her own economic security—an outcome that reflects our country’s weak safety net for caregivers. Even when the law suggested that there should have been supports available to her, the system failed Laura, denying her the benefits she was eligible to receive.

Laura’s father, who suffered from lymphoma, was struggling to care for his wife, who had Alzheimer’s. As his cancer treatments escalated, he could no longer care for both of them. Laura quit her job in Phoenix and moved back to her hometown, where she found another position. She worked during the day and then tended to her parents at night, preparing meals for the following day and assisting them as needed, and returning to work in the morning to start the cycle again.

Laura had no choice but to quit her job when her father became reliant on a feeding tube and required 24-hour care.   She says, “Financially, it was extremely strained for me. I just paid the necessities. The hit on my credit score over the past year due to not being able to pay bills will take me years to repair now.”

When Laura’s dad passed away, her ailing mother’s monthly income was significantly reduced, so hiring a caregiver or moving to assisted living was not an option. “Once again the decision was made,” says Laura, referring to the need to devote herself fully to her mother’s care. After several more months, her mother, too, passed away.

When she was forced to quit her job to care for her parents, Laura applied for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Laura lives in a state—Arizona—with UI rules that recognize family reasons as valid for voluntarily quitting a job; this means that someone who quits to care for a family member should not be automatically disqualified for UI on this basis. However, when she applied for UI, she says, “I answered the questions honestly. I said, yes, I had voluntarily quit. The form asked for an explanation and I wrote out a lengthy explanation.” She received a letter stating that her application had been denied because she had voluntarily quit her job.

Says Laura, “I wasn’t surprised because, you know, that’s what you hear on the street, if you quit you are not eligible.”

Laura’s experience says a lot about the need for better implementation of UI rules, including effective outreach to potential recipients and their employers. And it reinforces the messages we heard during interviews with advocates and agency officials conducted for the new report. An Arizona advocate told us that in her state, quits are almost automatically disqualified, despite exceptions in the rules, including those for caregivers.

It’s not just faulty implementation of state rules that makes UI inaccessible for far too many caregivers. In many places, state rules themselves create serious obstacles. In most states, workers must be seeking full-time employment (unless they were previously working part-time) in order to qualify for benefits—a requirement that is difficult to meet for those who continue to provide some care. The full-time rule means there is often a significant lag time between when a worker leaves her job and when she can become eligible for benefits. Moreover, many states unrealistically expect workers to engage in negotiations with employers to try to arrange for accommodations prior to quitting their jobs—even when they are certain that they have no alternative but to quit.

There are millions of people like Laura in the U.S.—and there will be even more in the years to come, as so many Americans experience the need to care for their aging loved ones. The UI system is one avenue by which we could provide some support for hardworking people who are experiencing some of life’s most difficult periods of time. We need to fix the UI system—and ensure other supports, such as paid family leave—in order to promote productive, healthy, and equitable communities.

Read the report >>

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