Workers Need Paid Sick Days—Not Undermining Laws

By Pronita Gupta

While the economy is booming for many, low-wage workers are struggling. Despite a sharp increase in the number of jobs that pay low wages, the quality of those jobs is declining.  Almost a quarter of these jobs, which are mostly filled by people of color, pay poverty-level wages (less than $11.70 per hour) and offer limited or no benefits, such as employer-provided health care or paid leave. Furthermore, many low-wage workers who would like to work full-time are only able to get part-time hours. And over half of low-wage workers no longer have traditional 9-to-5 hours, but instead face unstable schedules that make it difficult to arrange child care, take a second job, or manage their finances month to month.

The one silver lining in today’s economy is the tremendous growth of paid sick days and fair and predictable scheduling laws in states and cities around the country, with 44 jurisdictions having passed paid sick days laws and 7 with fair scheduling laws. Advocates and policymakers are driving these important labor standards, with workers and their families reaping the benefits. For example, 71 percent of private sector workers now have access to paid sick days—an increase of 10 percent since 2015. Yet low-wage workers are being left behind, with 69 percent of them having no access to paid sick days. The good news, however, is that the lowest-wage workers have made small gains (9 percent increase) in getting paid sick time over the last three years.

These modest but crucial gains in state and local laws, are now under threat. Under the grossly misnamed “Workflex in the 21st Century Act” (H.R. 4219), introduced by Representatives Mimi Walters (R-CA), Elise Stefanik (R-NY), and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), businesses would be able to circumvent state or local paid sick days or fair scheduling laws. The bill would allow employers to decide whether and when workers should have paid sick days or fair and predictable schedules. The Society for Human Resource Management, the primary advocate for this legislation, claims that H.R. 4219 would enable employers to provide more flexible and predictable schedules. However, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act already provides employers significant flexibility to offer a wide range of flexible scheduling options.

Research proves that a lack of paid sick days and fair schedules has a significant and damaging effect on low-wage workers who are often asked to make painful trade-offs between their job and caring for a sick loved one. Many low-wage workers, especially mothers, lose their jobs due to a lack of paid sick days or are passed over for promotions or raises because they need flexible schedules. 

Low-wage workers and their families also need federal workplace standards that provide supports and policies that strengthen their economic security and allow them to be productive while also caring and providing for their families. H.R. 4219 is not that federal standard. Workers need federal policies such as the Schedules that Work Act, which would provide fair scheduling protections, and the Healthy Families Act, which would establish a paid sick days standard. Until we have such policies, we must continue the momentum for critical state and local job quality laws that are making a real difference in the lives of low-income workers. H.R. 4219 would move us backward by providing no new flexibility for workers and further eroding their hard-fought labor standards and protections.