A Pledge For National Women’s Health Week: Better Jobs Now

By Liz Ben-Ishai

This week, as a part of National Women’s Health Week (NWHW), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health (OWH) is urging women to take a pledge that includes at least one step toward a healthier life. For women in their 30s like me, options include seeing my health care provider for an annual well-woman visit; getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most days; eating healthy; talking to my doctor about plans to have children in the next year; and numerous other possibilities. These are important steps for women of all ages to take, and OWH is rightly raising awareness about them.

But consider the situation of far too many women workers in the United States.

  • What about the 40 percent of employed women who lack access to a single paid sick day? For them, a well-woman doctor’s visit could cost them wages or even their jobs.
  • Imagine what this pledge means for the 34 percent of early-career working women who receive less than a week’s notice of their schedules: planning a doctor’s visit, let alone 30 minutes of physical activity, can be a major challenge when you can’t predict your work schedule. 
  • For the 70 percent of early-career hourly women workers who experience fluctuations in their hours from week to week, budgeting to buy healthy food can be a nightmare. Will you regret buying fresh fruit and vegetables this week if your hours get cut from 30 to 10 next week?
  • For low-wage workers living in the 19 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, assuming they can take time away from work, will a doctor’s visit be affordable?  Many of these workers earn too little to pay for their own insurance but too much to qualify for Medicaid under their states’ current plans.  
  • Working women who are able to make it to their doctor’s office to discuss their childbearing plans still face major challenges. According to one national survey, nearly a quarter of women take 10 days or less of parental leave – likely because so few have access to paid leave. Any doctor will tell you that short leaves aren’t good for new moms or their babies.

One goal of NWHW is to “empower women to make their health a priority.”  Yet for women workers and their families, health is about more than individual choices; before women can be empowered to make choices—let alone make a pledge–they need basic protections in the workplace and access to programs that support their capacities to do their jobs and care for their families.  We need federal laws to guarantee access to paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, expanded Medicaid in those states that haven’t done so yet, and fair work schedules.  And as we continue to push Congress to pass these laws, states and localities should pass their own labor standards, ensuring that we have healthy workplaces, healthy communities, and a healthy economy.

For National Women’s Health Week, women, workers, employers, policymakers, and the public should all take a pledge to pass public policies that improve job quality and women’s health.