Paid sick leave movement advancing

When Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) signed a paid sick leave bill into law last week, I thought back to when my two girls were little. I was offered a chance to work in the White House. I was 37 at the time, my older daughter was a toddler and my husband and I were trying to have another child. I half jokingly told friends, “I have a chance to work in the White House, and I have a chance to have another baby, and I can’t put either one of them off.”  So, I went for it – the job and the baby. The pressure was intense, the stakes high and the pace breakneck. But I knew that if one of my daughters got sick, I could take a day off if I needed to and get them to the doctor. I didn’t have to worry about losing my job or not getting paid. But I knew I was one of the lucky ones.

So for the past eight years, I’ve been working as part of a national movement to make sure that it’s not just people who are lucky enough to have a good boss who can take a day off if they or a loved one gets sick. The Vermont bill signing reflects that our hard work is paying off.

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Eight years ago, just two cities had laws that guaranteed workers the right to earn paid sick days. Last week, the Green Mountain state became the fifth state to sign a paid sick leave bill into law, joining a group that now also includes 21 cities, most recently Spokane, Washington. Right now, advocates are pushing hard for legislative approval in Maryland, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Los Angeles, and later this year they will be campaigning for voter approval in Arizona, Albuquerque and San Diego.

Vermont’s new law is the latest proof that the movement for fair, up-to-date workplace policies is growing. Victories at the state and local level have generated momentum for paid sick days at the national level. Last Labor Day, President Obama issued an executive order requiring government contracts to provide at least seven paid sick days, which directly benefits over 800,000 people.

When we started this effort at the Rockefeller Family Fund in 2008, our plan was to build momentum at the state and local level so that change at the national level would become inevitable. We worked with partners to create a movement – city by city and state by state – for workplace policies that put families first.

Today, 10 million more Americans no longer have to make the impossible choice between going to work with the flu and forfeiting pay that they use to put food on the table. They no longer have to send their young kids to school sick because they can’t take off work. Our communities and workplaces are stronger – and healthier – because of this progress. 

But these wins are about more than paid sick days. They are about creating a national movement for workplace and economic reforms that build the power of women and reduce inequality across our country.

Guaranteeing paid sick days is the first step towards building an economy that works for families and communities, creates a level playing field in the workplace and advances a new economic security rooted in addressing racial, class and gender distinctions. 

My oldest daughter will graduate from college next year, and my youngest will graduate from high school this year. Eight years from now, when they are working women, and perhaps have kids of their own or are thinking about having a family, I hope that because of our work today they are part of a workforce with a new respect for working families. Governor Shumlin’s action this week is an important step in that direction.

Guide is associate director of the Rockefeller Family Fund. She worked in the Clinton White House from 1997 to 1999.