Railroad workers are far from alone in being denied paid sick time. We need a federal law
Erica had been working for four years as a pediatric nurse in Tennessee when the pandemic hit. When her child began to experience COVID-19 symptoms, Erica found herself with less than a day of paid time off. Because she couldn’t afford to take unpaid time off and, of course, needed to care for her daughter, she was forced to leave her job and search for another, leaving her family without income at a critical time.
The recent struggle of railroad workers to obtain access to paid sick time without penalty—and their willingness to strike to obtain this essential right—has brought the importance of access to paid sick time into the national conversation. The fact is that the United States has failed to protect the health of not only our frontline workers like Erica and those who kept the railroads running throughout the pandemic, but of a huge swath or our nation’s workforce. There are 33 million workers in the U.S. who lack even a single paid sick day they can use for their own health or to care for a sick child or other loved one. And the United States is an extreme outlier among other countries in failing to guarantee what should be a basic, fundamental right for all working people. The consequences of that failure are severe.
For one, lack of paid sick time exacerbates the spread of infectious disease and risks the health of countless workers and their families. One study made during the brief time in 2020 when Congress granted temporary access to paid sick leave demonstrated that access to paid sick time resulted in 400 fewer cases of COVID-19 per day than would have occurred without access to paid sick time.
For another, access to paid sick leave is deeply intertwined with racial, gender and economic equity concerns, with workers of color, women, and LGBTQ individuals disproportionately less likely to have access to paid sick time. Workers in low-wage positions are also much less likely to have paid sick time, with 96 percent of the highest-wage workers having access to paid sick days compared to only 38 percent of the lowest-paid workers in the country. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Black workers have been three times more likely than white workers to have their requests for paid sick leave denied.
And paid sick time does not just benefit workers and their communities: Access to paid sick leave also benefits businesses, and it gives a much-needed boost to the economy as a whole. Absences caused by flu-like illnesses in the workplace costs employers an estimated 111 million workdays per year. Even prior to the pandemic, states with paid sick leave requirements saw a 40 percent decrease in influenza rates, boosting the economies in those states and preventing costly and disruptive outbreaks within the workplace.
A Better Balance has drafted paid sick time laws and worked with advocates around the country to enact those laws at the state and local levels. There are now 16 states, including the District of Columbia, and dozens of localities, including almost all of our nation’s largest cities, that now guarantee workers paid sick time. Through our free work-family legal helpline, we’ve used these laws countless times to help workers stay healthy and keep their jobs. Unfortunately, railroad workers cannot benefit from these sick time protections due to federal law, which preempts states from guaranteeing this right to railworkers. And the millions of workers in other states and localities are left with no legal protection when it comes to sick time.
In March, 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act which contained temporary paid sick time provisions for many workers. Despite that law’s success, and despite the climbing number of deaths and economic toll of the pandemic, Congress refused to renew those protections at the end of 2020 and allowed the law to expire. What should have been the first step on the way to permanent, nationwide paid sick time now symbolizes how we have left countless workers in the lurch when they or a loved one fall ill—even during an ongoing public health emergency. Railworkers’ current struggle for paid sick time has spurred yet another pivotal opportunity for a national reckoning, and we cannot allow the moment to pass us by. It is time for our nation’s leaders to make comprehensive, inclusive federal paid sick time a priority and guarantee this right to every worker in the country.
Sherry Leiwant is co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, a national legal advocacy organization dedicated to advancing justice for workers, so they can care for themselves and their loved ones.
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