In Focus

Sep 10, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

President Celebrates Labor Day by Extending Paid Sick Days to Government Contractors

By Zoe Ziliak Michel 

Workers were given another reason to celebrate Labor Day this year, as President Obama chose that day to sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to provide their employees with one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to seven paid sick days per year. The White House estimates that this executive order, which takes effect in 2017, will give about 300,000 additional workers access to paid sick days. Workers will have the right to use those sick days not only to convalesce when they fall ill themselves, but also to care for a sick relative or seek safety in cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

While extending paid sick days benefits to 300,000 new contractors is great news, this executive order underscores the need for all workers to be guaranteed paid sick days through  a national law – the Healthy Families Act (HFA). An estimated 43 million American workers lack access to paid time off to care for themselves or sick family members. The HFA would give all workers at businesses with at least 15 employees the right to earn up to seven days of paid sick time per year, while those at smaller businesses would earn up to seven days of unpaid (but still job-protected) sick time annually.

Our nation’s workers need paid sick days to protect the health of their own families and their communities. Parents without paid sick days are likely to send their kids to school sick, endangering the health of classmates and teachers. In contrast, those with paid leave are more likely to attend prenatal and well-child medical visits, get flu shots, and pursue other preventive care for themselves and their children. And employers who already have paid sick days policies state that offering paid sick days doesn’t hurt their bottom line; in fact, it reduces turnover, saving them money on hiring and training.

The president stressed the need for a federal paid sick days law in his Labor Day speech announcing the executive order. “I’m calling on Congress [to] take a cue from the rest of the world…Pass a national policy for paid sick days as well,” he urged, adding, “It’ll be good for business.”

On Labor Day, American workers celebrated the workplace rights that unions have fought for and won. Yet there are still more protections we need to secure. It’s time for job-protected paid sick days for all American workers. It’s time for the Healthy Families Act.

Aug 5, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

On the Road with FMLA for 22 Years

By Jodie Levin-Epstein 

Twenty two years ago today the rubber hit the road on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). That’s when the new law actually began to reach workers around the country. Since then, working men and women have been able to take unpaid FMLA leave about 200 million times to care for children, elders, and spouses or to address their own serious illness for up to twelve weeks -- without fear of losing their jobs. 

The birth of the law itself, however, was not easy. A large part of the challenge was push back from employer associations that worried about a new labor standard. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Businesses took the lead in bludgeoning the legislation when it was first introduced some 30 years ago; a leader of the latter cried wolf and claimed that the unpaid family benefits represented “the greatest threats to small business in America.” The bill got stuck for a full decade until bipartisan Congressional leadership finally delivered it. Nineteen Republicans in the Senate and 40 in the House voted yes, joining scores of Democrats in both chambers. That was in 1993.

The business associations that worried and rallied against unpaid leave before the law passed should take to heart how unthreatening actual implementation of FMLA is to businesses both small and large. Employers typically find that the FMLA is a manageable policy and that it can have positive impacts. Fully 9 of every 10 employers report that complying with the FMLA has had either a positive effect or no noticeable effect on employee absenteeism, turnover, and morale according to a national survey released by the Department of Labor in 2013. A poll of small businesses found that four out of five small entrepreneurs support FMLA, including almost half who strongly favor it.

While the FMLA has already achieved a lot, it needs to be modernized. About 40 percent of the workforce is not covered by the FMLA. That’s because the law includes significant restrictions on which employers and which employees are covered. For example, employers with fewer than 50 workers are not covered. Further, it also limits who in the family an employee can care for under FMLA; notably, grandparents, grandchildren, and siblings are among those who are excluded. Some states have taken action to address these FMLA issues. Congress should let bi-partisan history repeat itself and act now to modernize the FMLA.

While a modernized FMLA is necessary, it is not sufficient. FMLA provides unpaid leave, which makes it unaffordable for many. A program that provides paid family and medical leave for all workers will make it more feasible for those who struggle to make ends meet to take the time to care for family. Employer-provided paid coverage is rare: only 13 percent of workers have access to paid family leave and less than 40 percent have access to personal medical leave through employer disability programs.

In Congress, the FAMILY Act would establish a social insurance program funded by small contributions from both employers and employees; workers on leave would receive partial pay. Importantly, a poll conducted for Small Business Majority (SBM) found that a plurality (45 percent) of small businesses support this approach. Three states – California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island – have already created their own paid family leave programs. Evidence is building that these programs, like the FMLA, work for employers. For example, a study found that California’s paid leave program gets high marks: 9 out of 10 employers report either positive or no noticeable effects on productivity, profitability, turnover, and employee morale. 

Business associations and individual employers are already speaking out in support of paid family and medical leave. Leaders from American Sustainable Business Council, SBM, Main Street Alliance, and the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce have each offered perspectives in support of the FAMILY Act. Better Workplaces, Better Businesses, a partnership of associations, highlights employers who make the business case for paid leave and are calling on Congress to take action. As Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube (a Google subsidiary), explains:

“When we increased paid maternity leave at Google from 12 to 18 weeks, we discovered it wasn’t just good for mothers, it was good for business, doubling our retention rate amongst mothers. I’ve personally benefitted from Google’s policy, but all working families, regardless of their employer or state of residence, deserve the benefits of paid family leave. That’s why I support the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, a federal bill that would help employees care for their families until they were ready to return to work and help their businesses thrive.”

As the FMLA celebrates 22 years of being on the road, it is time to acknowledge that the existing infrastructure for job-protected, unpaid family and medical leave deserves repair; it is also time to move in a new direction and create a paid family and medical leave program for all workers. If our nation truly cares about families, as our leaders so often say, it’s time to ramp up old and new policies that can drive such words into action.

Jul 17, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

Schedules that Work Act Reintroduced in House and Senate

By Zoe Ziliak Michel

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, seven members of Congress joined workers and an employer at an event marking reintroduction of the Schedules that Work Act, federal legislation to provide vital protections for employees burdened with unpredictable, inflexible work schedules. If passed, it would provide stability for low-income workers and improve businesses’ bottom lines.

The Schedules that Work Act would guarantee employees the right to request scheduling accommodations from their employers without fear of retaliation. Additionally, workers with caregiving obligations, second jobs, or serious health conditions, as well as those enrolled in educational or job training programs, would have the right to receive such accommodations. Employers in the retail, food preparation and service, and building cleaning sectors would further be required to provide workers with their schedules at least two weeks in advance and compensate them with additional pay for last-minute schedule changes, being sent home from work early, or working split shifts.

This would dramatically improve the lives of workers like Hilaria Bonilla, a fast food worker and single mother who spoke at the briefing. When Bonilla was diagnosed with glaucoma, her doctor advised her not to work after dark. However, because she is afraid that any request to change schedules will lead her manager to cut her hours in retaliation, she has continued to work the night shift. The schedule accommodations guaranteed by the Schedules that Work Act would allow Bonilla to protect her health and spend more time with her daughter.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) stressed that businesses as well as their employees benefit from fair scheduling practices. When workers gain economic security [through predictable work schedules], it reduces turnover,” she explained. “This bill is actually pro-worker and pro-business.” This message was echoed by Washington, DC, restaurateur Tony Dundas-Lucca. The owner of 1905 and El Camino provides his 60 employees with their work schedules a month in advance and lets them request changes and trade shifts. The policies have been good for his bottom line: “These practices…are part of what allows us to maintain relatively low turnover in a high-turnover industry,” said Dundas-Lucca. “We save on the costs of hiring and training new staff, and we benefit from the higher morale and productivity of our satisfied employees.”

Research supports Dundas-Lucca’s testimony. Susan Lambert, a professor at the University of Chicago, described how managers at businesses that have implemented more flexible scheduling practices report greater productivity, improved customer service, and reduced absenteeism. Moreover, firms where managers considered employee needs in creating work schedules enjoyed almost 23 percent less employee turnover. Given the high cost of training new employees, implementing practices that encourage employee retention—most notably offering stable or flexible schedules—makes good business sense.

The bill’s reintroduction comes as interest in scheduling rights surges across the country. In 2015 alone, legislation to improve employer scheduling practices has been introduced in 12 jurisdictions. Additionally, San Francisco has enacted the country’s first comprehensive retail workers’ bill of rights, which includes provisions on scheduling and access to hours.

The Schedules that Work Act will provide critical support to workers struggling to plan their lives in the face of last-minute scheduling changes and unpredictable work hours. Wednesday’s reintroduction brings hope for swift Congressional action to promote sound business practices and support our nation’s most vulnerable workers.

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