Congress should set the floor on paid leave
© Getty Images

Paid sick days laws are under attack this week, as corporate lobbyists address the U.S. House of Representatives to gain support for a harmful bill that would strip employees across the country of hard-won paid sick time and flexible work schedules. People need time to care for themselves or a sick loved one, which is why 44 jurisdictions have passed paid sick days. Yet, lobbyists are urging Congress to give wealthy corporations a way to evade state and local laws and go back to putting limits and punishments on their employees for using the paid sick time they’ve earned.

As a state senator from Rhode Island and a campaign advisor to Family Values @ Work, I know we need paid sick days with real standards for all employees. H.R. 4219 won’t do that. Deceptively named “WorkFlex in the 21st Century,” this bill gives employers the power to decide when, whether, for what reason, and at what cost employees can use their paid time off. This detrimental proposal would create uncertainty for employees, employers and local enforcement agencies, and undermine the public’s health, while making a mockery of our state legislative process.

ADVERTISEMENT

Paid leave—both paid sick days and paid family and medical leave—is vital for all people who work and is an issue that is near to my heart. In fact, my own need to be cared for and to care for my children inspired me to run for office in 2012 and make paid time to care a reality for all Rhode Islanders. I am proud that in 2013 we expanded Rhode Island’s state-run Temporary Disability Insurance to create Temporary Caregiver Insurance, the first job-protected paid family leave in the country.

That victory in 2013 was years in the making. I met with labor leaders and business owners. I sat down with our Department of Labor and Training (DLT), reached out to activists, and spoke with policy analysts and lawyers in New Jersey, New York City, and California to gain lessons learned from their efforts. After negotiations and compromises, we passed a bill.

Thousands of Rhode Islanders have benefited from paid leave, but we heard from constituents that we needed to take the next step. In addition to the occasional need for extended leave to welcome a new child or care for a serious personal or family illness, people also need some time every year for routine illness. We all get stomach bugs; our children get strep throat. Domestic abuse survivors should not lose pay or a job when they are forced to miss work to seek shelter. That’s why I’m proud that last year we made paid sick and safe days a reality for Rhode Islanders.

The research is clear—lack of paid sick days is detrimental to a person’s health and the health of our communities. People without paid sick time are less likely to seek preventive health care. And employees who lack paid sick time are more likely to go to work ill, risking infecting their co-workers, customers, and those they come in daily contact with.

Both sides of the aisle clearly agree that we need paid leave, but our national leaders should be creating the floor, not the ceiling. This destructive bill could hurt a million Rhode Islanders, and millions of others across the country who could see their guaranteed sick and safe time stripped away. It does nothing for working people who are the backbone of the American economy, but it does quite a bit for larger corporations who want to circumvent hard-won state and local laws that guarantee protections for workers.  

As a state senator, it is offensive that the proponents of this bill are trying to diminish my ability to serve my own constituents. This bill undermines the carefully crafted state and local laws that my colleagues and I have worked hard to create—laws that have been successful and benefit millions of people and their families every day.

Instead of trying to fix what’s not broken, Congress should focus on what really works: the Healthy Families Actthe Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, and the Schedules That Work Act.

Congress should set a floor for good policy, not pull the rug out from those of us who are elected to state and local government and the constituents we represent. I’m proud of what we have done in Rhode Island. My constituents needed paid leave, and we worked together to find a solution that improves the lives of our families and neighbors. People everywhere want paid leave, and it’s time for Congress to answer that call.

Gayle Goldin is a Democratic state senator of Rhode Island and a campaign advisor to Family Values @ Work