Family values. We hear that term a lot around election season, on the House and Senate floor and over the airwaves. But politicians should focus on what family members mean when they talk about family around the kitchen table.
What family members want is simple: to care for loved ones without jeopardizing their ability to provide for those loved ones. They want to be able to stay with a sick child without worrying about missing a day’s wages – or worse, losing a job. They want to be at the bedside of a seriously ill parent, help a partner recover from surgery, spend the crucial early months with a newborn without sending the family into bankruptcy.
Unfortunately, too many Americans lack paid sick days and paid family and medical leave. Right now, the only federal statute designed to help people meet the dual demands of job and family is the Family and Medical Leave Act, a law that was an important step but leaves out 40 percent of the workforce and guarantees only unpaid time, which millions cannot afford to take.
Today, only 12 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave. Meanwhile, 40 million American workers have no access to earned sick days, including eight in 10 of the lowest-wage workers, who can least afford to lose income.
Take Arlyssa Heard from Detroit, Michigan. After more than a decade helping people transition from welfare to employment, Alyssa lost her job when the contractor went out of business. The new firm hired most staff back but without any health insurance or paid sick days. Arlyssa had no time to go to the doctor for herself and wound up in the emergency room needing a blood transfusion – with a bill of $5,000.
“There were a lot of things doctors could have caught earlier,” she says. Arlyssa also has a son with sickle cell anemia, now age 19, who is frequently in the hospital. “Paid sick days would have allowed me to be with my son when he was hospitalized without the stress of worrying, are we going to be able to make the rent.”
Providing paid leave and sick days are central to family values in our country. And it’s also central to getting our economy on track. Our country’s economy will never be at its strongest when so many families are constantly on the brink of financial crisis.
Arlyssa will be one of a thousand workers, local elected officials, business owners and advocates going to Washington to take on these issues at the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families.
The Summit couldn’t come at a better time – the momentum behind these policies is growing across the country. Last year, three cities - New York City, Portland and Jersey City – passed paid sick days laws, joining San Francisco, Seattle, Washington D.C. and the state of Connecticut. Washington, DC added coverage for tipped workers. So far this year Newark, N.J. passed a similar ordinance and New York City expanded their law. Citywide laws or ballot initiatives are currently under consideration in Chicago, Eugene, OR , Tacoma, WA, San Diego, Oakland and several places in New Jersey; and statewide initiatives are gaining steam in California, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. Also in 2013, Rhode Island joined California and New Jersey in passing paid family leave, with New York, Colorado and other states considering similar legislation.
We often hear that states should act as incubators for policies before they are brought to scale nationally, and the good news is that these policies have now been tried and tested. The evidence is clear. Earned sick days and paid family and medical leave help reduce employee turnover, boost worker productivity and keep money in the pockets of families who will spend it at the local grocery store and clothing shop. Even one of the most outspoken opponents in San Francisco, Golden Gate Restaurant Association’s Executive Director Kevin Westyle, told a business reporter that paid sick days “is the best public policy for the least cost. Do you want your server coughing over your food?”
It’s past time to get real about the family values working families in this country really care about. We need national policies that let Americans be good employees, good parents to their kids and good children to their parents.
Bravo is executive director of Family Values @ Work, a consortium of coalitions in 21 states fighting for policies that help Americans be good providers and good caregivers.