In Focus: Sick Days and Family Medical Leave

Nov 5, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Job Quality Wins at the Ballot Box; Next Up: Federal Laws and Implementation

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Good jobs are a bipartisan issue—that was the message from voters in yesterday’s midterm elections.

In Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota—states where Republicans won gubernatorial and Congressional races—and in several cities in California, voters resoundingly supported initiatives to increase the minimum wage. Cities and counties in Wisconsin and Illinois also supported minimum wage initiatives in non-binding referenda. In Oakland, California; Trenton and Montclair, Jersey; and Massachusetts, workers were also winners with the passage of paid sick days ballot initiatives.

Advocates in all of these jurisdictions have worked tirelessly for this long-awaited victory. Their efforts have built consensus within communities across the country that no one should work full-time, but still live in poverty; parents shouldn’t have to choose between taking care of a sick child and earning a day’s wages; and workers shouldn’t have to show up at work when they ought to be at home recovering from illness. For working families, these are exciting outcomes that will help bolster the nationwide fight for improved job quality and counter the spread of inequality.

Massachusetts’ paid sick days victory at the ballot box comes on the heels of California’s recently passed statewide paid sick days legislation. Until last month, Connecticut was the only state to have such a law. But momentum for paid sick days standards has been building at the local level for some time, with San Francisco passing the nation’s first law in 2007, and an additional nine cities passing laws just in 2014. With a total of three state and 16 city paid sick days laws now in effect or soon to be enacted, the days of counting the country’s sick time protections on one hand are long gone.

In the wake of this week’s victories, ensuring proper implementation and enforcement of existing and newly passed paid sick days laws is critical. Going forward, advocates and government agencies must work together to ensure that recent (and less-recent) paid sick days laws are making a meaningful difference in the lives of working families. On both coasts, agencies charged with paid sick days implementation are already stepping up their game. Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights recently announced a new set of strategies to boost employer compliance, now that the city’s law has been effective for more than two years. And New York City is ready to issue its first fines to employers that have failed to comply with the city’s recently enacted law.

Although the results of yesterday’s Congressional election may appear to make action at the national level less likely, it is critical that we continue to push for passage of the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1286/S.631), the federal paid sick days bill that would guarantee millions more workers access to paid sick days, regardless of what state or city they live in. Indeed, this week’s clear show of bipartisan support for paid sick days, minimum wage, and other job quality measures—which echoes earlier polling results—will hopefully be an eye-opener for both newly elected and returning Members of Congress as they plan their legislative agenda for the coming session.  At the same time, as we advocate for passage of federal paid sick days legislation, local and state campaigns are more important than ever in paving the way to a national labor standard.

Aug 28, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Celebrate Local, State Victories on Labor Day: New Laws Promote Job Quality

By Liz Ben-Ishai

A $15 minimum wage. Paid sick days. Ordinances to prevent and redress wage theft. “Ban the box” laws limiting discriminatory questions about criminal records on job applications. Paid family leave insurance. Rules giving workers the right to request predictable or flexible job schedules..  

No, this is not an ode to progressive Canadian or European labor laws – rather, all are important advancements enacted in the U.S. in the past year – at the state and city levels. Across the country, despite gridlock in Congress, workers and advocates have been winning campaigns to enact new rules that will improve the quality of jobs, particularly those paying lower wages. This Labor Day, we should look at these successes – and beyond – for a model of how to improve the quality of jobs for all Americans.

In the wake of the Great Recession, job growth is concentrated in low-wage sectors that leave families struggling to get by, and the wages in these sectors are getting worse. Over the past four years, wages have declined for millions of U.S. workers in the top ten lower-wage occupations, including declines of more than 5 percent for personal care aides, restaurant cooks, food preparation workers, maids and housekeepers, and home health aides.

It’s not just wages that matter. As the new labor standards passed in states and cities suggest, high-quality jobs build on that foundation to provide stable and predictable hours, paid leave, and opportunities for advancement. Unfortunately, as a new report released today by CLASP shows, the growing number of low-wage jobs comes with a widening gap in access to quality jobs.

Many employer-provided benefits are in decline. Just in the past four years, access to retirement benefits has dropped 5 percent for those in the lowest quartile of wage earners. Financial struggles do not wait until retirement but begin on day one, when far too many workers can’t even take a single paid day away from work to bond with a new baby, let alone recover from childbirth. A mere 5 percent of low-wage workers have access to paid family leave. And don’t be fooled into thinking they can simply take vacation or sick days: nearly half of workers in the lowest 25 percent of wage earners have no paid sick, family, personal, or vacation time – zero paid leave of any kind. These workers must return to the job days after the arrival of a new child, or quit their jobs, plunging into economic uncertainty.

New research highlights the rampant problems of job schedule instability and unpredictability in low-wage jobs. Among early-career workers in hourly jobs, 40 percent receive one week or less advanced notice of their schedules; nearly 70 percent of mothers and 80 percent of fathers with young children experience significant fluctuations from week to week in the number of hours they receive. These issues were in the spotlight recently when a Starbucks’ employee’s desperate juggling act to care for her son while working erratic shifts received high-profile coverage, which prompted the Fortune 500 company to rethink its scheduling practices.

Yet the solutions to our crisis of job quality won’t be found in the efforts of individual companies, but in strong public policies, like those passed in many states and cities last year. This Labor Day, we should celebrate these victories, but as we do so, we must turn our attention to implementation efforts, ensuring that these new laws genuinely improve working families’ lives.

Access to good jobs shouldn’t depend on where in America you live. That’s why, in addition to state and local protections, we need national policies. As suggested in CLASP’s report, we should start with macroeconomic policies that support strong job growth, including the repeal of crushing sequestration cuts. For those who can’t find work, we need flexible unemployment insurance policies that recognize the realities of today’s workforce, including the participation of many working caregivers. To overcome the social, political, and economic problems created by growing inequality, we need public policies that help all workers, including low-income youth and adults of color, find good jobs.

Finally, the nation needs a higher minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, and fair scheduling policies.  In addition, we need beefed-up enforcement of labor standards that already exist, yet aren’t always upheld.

While we work towards Congressional action on these issues, which affect everyone in the country, workers, advocates, and elected officials in even more states and localities, are continuing to take matters into their own hands.

Here’s hoping that the movement for better job quality will see many more successes for all Americans, regardless of where they live, before Labor Day rolls around next year.

Click here to read the report.

Aug 1, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Paid Leave: A No-Brainer for Businesses and a Lifesaver for Workers

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Could it be that workers whose employers offer leave benefits actually end up getting sick less often because they are happier? Senator Al Franken (D-MN), tongue firmly in cheek, proposed this “radical” idea at a hearing on paid leave held by the Senate Health Economic Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee’s Subcommittee on Children and Families. Franken’s comments echo all the evidence: paid leave is a no-brainer that benefits both workers and employers. Unfortunately, far too many workers still lack paid leave, including paid sick days and paid family and medical leave.

The hearing, convened by Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC), drew attention to the dire circumstances facing U.S. workers who need time away from work to welcome a new child, care for a sick loved one, or recover from serious illness. Witnesses testified to the importance of paid leave for families’ economic security, the value to employers of offering such programs, and the growing body of evidence that shows the effectiveness of existing paid leave programs. The critical importance of this issue was evidenced by the attendance of seven senators: Casey (D-PA), Franken (D-MN), Hagan (D-NC), Harkin (D-IA), Murphy (D-CT), Murray (D-WA), and Warren (D-MA).

Those who oppose paid leave policies often express concern about their effect on businesses. However, testimony from Kevin Trapani, CEO and president of The Redwoods Group, and Maryella Gockel, flexibility leader at Ernst & Young LLP, demonstrates that such worries are misguided. Indeed, for these employers, as well as for businesses in the states that have passed paid family leave insurance laws (California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey), there has been no evidence of what witness Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women & Families called the “parade of horribles”—a litany of negative business implications predicted by critics.

Trapani, whose business offers generous leave benefits, described the importance of meeting his employees’ needs so that they can best  perform important work for clients and the community. Paid leave has been crucial to the well-being of many Redwoods employees, said Trapani. For example, one employee took paid leave to care for his sick father, who lives out of town. He told Trapani, “My dad may not have survived if I hadn’t been here.” And at Redwoods, paid leave doesn’t just benefit  employees grappling with grave personal matters; it pays dividends for  the company’s bottom line. Redwood’s turnover rate for the past 10 years is only 5 percent, generating major  cost savings and increased productivity from a loyal workforce.

Ernst & Young’s Gockel explained how paid leave and other benefits have nearly closed the gap in retention rates between male and female employees at her company; in the mid-90s, she said, women were leaving the company at a much faster rate than men. Beyond the impact of such disparities on women’s ability to advance in their careers, Gockel noted that high rates of turnover are costly. For a mid-level worker, said Gockel, it costs between 1.5 and two times the worker’s annual salary to hire and train a replacement.

Jeannine Sato’s experience, recounted at the hearing, brings the retention and turnover numbers to life. In a previous job, when Sato had her first child, she found that her employer was not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) because it had multiple offices that were more than 75 miles apart, meaning the number of employees at each location could not be combined for FMLA eligibility purposes. This obscure provision meant that Sato was not eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the law—and her employer was unwilling to accommodate her needs. As the family breadwinner, she had no choice but to go back to work just six weeks after giving birth. Soon, she was looking for a new job. “Even a big raise couldn’t keep me there,” she said. Sure enough, Sato had found  new employment less than a year later. Workers like Sato offer a lesson to employers about the consequences of not providing paid leave: while it may prevent a valued employee’s temporary absence, it could cause you to lose them permanently.

While some employers haven’t caught on yet, there are many who are aware of the importance of providing paid leave. Unfortunately, despite many high-road employers taking action, others are not in a position to do so because of the financial burden of extended paid leaves. However, legislation introduced in Congress last December would help such well-intentioned employers to do right by their workers. Using small contributions from employers and employees, the Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMILY) Act would create a trust fund for workers to draw on when they need to take leave. Such a social insurance program is appealing to workers and employers alike, as evidenced by support from many small businesses and a growing group of diverse business leaders from across the country.

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