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Obama's Not Alone: Inviting Cities to the Labor Day Barbecue

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

(Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

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We always knew it would take a fight to enact the kinds of sweeping reforms we need to fix the economy so that it really works for working Americans. The Employee Free Choice Act was never set to sail through Congress without opposition from the nation’s most anti-union employers. No one expects that it will be much easier to repair our broken immigration laws, overhaul flawed trade policy, improve retirement security or ensure that parents can finally afford time off work to welcome a newborn. But the sheer nastiness of the health care reform fight begs the question: if even modest reforms are this difficult for a popular Democratic President with large majorities in both chambers of Congress, how will we ever achieve the economic restructuring the nation needs?

One way to improve the odds that working people will have more to celebrate on Labor Days to come is to ensure that our cities get a special invitation to the national policy conversation. Picture it as a giant nationwide barbecue: gathered around the grill, cities can share local policy victories that have measurably improved the lives of their own residents – and can provide a successful model for other cities and for national action. Raising the profile of proven local policies may make the reforms proposed in Washington feel a lot less lonely.

San Francisco can share its own universal health care model, which currently provides 45,000 uninsured city residents with access to affordable primary and preventive care, prescriptions and lab tests through city clinics and participating private hospitals. The track record of Healthy San Francisco, as the program is known, should be informing the national health care debate to a far greater extent than it is.

While they’re talking health, the City by the Bay can also recount its experience guaranteeing everyone employed in the city the opportunity to earn paid sick days – a policy that is projected to reduce costs and improve public health and has not increased unemployment. Washington DC and Milwaukee have already passed weaker versions of this policy. Now New York City is looking to emulate San Francisco’s success. Examples like these can boost national legislation like the Healthy Families Act which would let working people nationwide stop having to make the untenable choice between their health and a needed paycheck.

Minneapolis could also pipe up. The City of Lakes insists that when they provide subsidies for economic development, companies that get public money need to create living wage jobs. The successful policy is a vivid example to cities across the country which regularly provide lucrative private tax breaks only to lure poverty-level jobs.

Then there’s New York, where grassroots organizations citywide have teamed up with the State Department of Labor to educate employees and employers about workplace laws and identify cases where employers are illegally cheating their workers out of pay. The program, known as New York Wage Watch has attracted national controversy because it enlists unions in the effort to detect illegal activity by employers. The debate provides a perfect opportunity to consider which poses a greater threat to the country: the pervasiveness of employers stealing employee wages or the potential for groups – which have no special power to look at a company’s books or confidential documents – to intrude on private business as they uncover illegal activity? Lawbreakers may be right to fear that this local education and monitoring effort could go national.

Finally, Los Angeles should join the party. Home to the nation’s busiest seaport, Los Angeles realized it would never significantly improve air quality as long as the dirty diesel trucks servicing the port were owned by overstretched independent operators without the resources to buy or maintain cleaner vehicles. The city took bold action to both clean up the trucks and transform the drivers from exploited independent contractors into employees with a chance of improving their own working conditions. Not surprisingly, national business interests don’t like the idea of port truckers unionizing. But other port cities are considering the policy, with the potential to improve the quality of both air and jobs.

Federal policy battles cannot be won in a vacuum. Cities and towns across the country demonstrate the success of policies that improve the lives of working people. This is one Labor Day barbecue we should all attend.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Her studies focused on comparative political economy, political theory, and social movements. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers. She has also been active on the local political scene working with progressive elected officials. Amy resides in Manhattan Valley with her husband.

This blog was originally written for DMI Blog for Labor Day 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

Women's Equality Day - Continuing the Fight

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Eighty-nine years after women finally won the right to vote, we honor the past success of the women’s suffrage movement and recommit to today’s continuing fight for equality.

There is still much work to be done. Women still earn less than men, and are still more likely to live in poverty. The lack of workplace policies means it is still difficult for working women, particularly those earning low wages, to meet our dual responsibilities at work and at home. And, even though we’re in the toughest economic times in recent memory, there is still no federal legislation that guarantees the time to care for yourself or your family in times of illness without losing your pay or your job.

Even as we recognize the struggle that won women the right to vote, the fight to win a minimum labor standard of paid sick days is at full pitch. In Milwaukee, 9to5 has filed an appeal to a judge’s ruling to void the sick days ordinance passed by 70 percent of Milwaukee voters last November. And in Washington DC, the Healthy Families Act, federal legislation that would guarantee paid sick days to American workers, is moving in the Congress. 9to5’s members, activists and allies are contacting members of Congress, telling their stories, and helping to build awareness that paid sick days are good for working families, good for the flailing economy, good for business.

Visit www.9to5.org to learn more about how we organize women to speak out to end the pay gap, change work-family policy and win paid sick days.

On this Women’s Equality Day, the legacy of the suffragists who organized women to win the right to vote compels us to recommit to winning equality and justice for working women.

Linda Meric is Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, an inclusive multi-racial membership organization founded in 1973 to strengthen the ability of low-income women to win economic justice through grassroots organizing and policy advocacy.

Under Linda’s leadership, 9to5 has won important victories on minimum wage, good jobs, work-family, anti-discrimination, pay equity, welfare, child care and other issues affecting low-income women. Linda has spent more than 30 years as a labor and community organizer. She also serves as an adjunct professor specializing in sexual harassment and other workplace issues.

Linda is a member of the Governor’s Colorado Pay Equity Commission, serves in the leadership of several state and national policy coalitions, and has received several awards for her work with and on behalf of low-income women, including the “Be Bold” Award presented by the Women’s Foundation of Colorado. She was recently appointed to the National Board of Directors of the American Forum, a progressive media organization.

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For Dad: Healthy Families Act Is Perfect Gift

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Even the White House is calling extra-special attention to Father’s Day 2009.

President Barack Obama is kicking off a new initiative on fatherhood, by hosting a town hall meeting on personal responsibility and by inviting male students to the White House to hang-out with some famous Dads.

As on Mother’s Day, many of us will bestow all manner of gifts on Dad – but the last thing Dad needs is another necktie.

For Father’s Day, we need to ensure that Dads can stay home from work when they, their children, spouse, or parents are ill — without putting the family’s economic self-sufficiency at risk. That’s why, for Father’s Day, we need to pass the Healthy Families Act (HFA).

Co-sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Edward Kennedy, the HFA would make it possible for workers – Dads, Moms and others – to earn up to seven paid sick days per year. The HFA would also allow all workers access to paid sick days to recover from domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault.

Almost 60 million Americans lack a single paid sick day in which to care for themselves when illness strikes. In addition, nearly 100 million workers don’t have a paid sick day they can use to care for an ill child.

Everyone occasionally gets sick – Dad included. And everyone needs the time to recover. But those without paid sick days risk their jobs to do so. If we listen to the President’s wisdom about personal responsibility, we also know that Dad needs time to share in the family care-giving responsibilities. Being able to use paid sick days to care for a sick child would make this more possible.

This year, to truly celebrate fathers, we need to give the gift of paid sick days by passing the HFA. Contact your members of Congress to let them know you support passage of the Healthy Families Act. Visit www.congress.org to find their contact information.

Give Dad a gift that –unlike all those ties – will never mysteriously disappear; a guaranteed basic labor standard of paid sick days.

About the Author: Linda Meric is Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Women, which helps strengthen women’s ability to achieve economic justice. 9to5 has staffed offices in Wisconsin, Colorado, California and Georgia and activists in cities across the country.

This article originally appeared in 9to5.org on June 21, 2009. Re-printed with permission from the author.

Trying Times Call for Healthy Families Act

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

These are challenging times for America’s families. One in 4 Americans, or about 23 percent of those surveyed in a recent Gallup Poll, report that they are “very worried” about keeping up with their monthly bills over the next six months. That’s up from 19 percent a year ago and 15 percent in March 2007.

And while many of us are working harder than ever to keep pace under the current economic pressure, workplace duties are not the only duties we have.

Family responsibilities await us at home. That is why we must pass the Healthy Families Act, introduced in the 111th Congress on May 18 by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, also a Democrat.

Workers still get sick. Children still get fevers and runny noses. Mom or Dad still needs to take them to the doctor or just stay by their bedside to nurse them back to health. No matter how dedicated workers are to hanging on to their jobs at all cost, the need to occasionally take time away from work never goes away–not even in a tough recession, not even when jobs are this hard to come by.

Unfortunately, nearly half of private sector workers in the United States don’t have a single paid sick day to care for themselves. Additionally, nearly 100 million Americans get no paid time off to care for an ailing child or an aging parent.

Fewer “Wives” at Home

While this is an issue for all workers, the reality is that women, or “wives,” have historically been tasked with the family care-giving responsibilities–and most families do not have a “wife” at home these days.

The numbers speak for themselves. According to a 2007 report by the Multi-State Working Families Consortium, “Valuing Families: It’s About Time,” less than 6 percent of all women in the U.S. were in the work force at the turn of the century. By 1950, that number had climbed to 24 percent; by 2000 to 60 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of single parents–mostly women–has also mushroomed and single mothers are working many more hours than they have in past years. Why? The Valuing Families report attributes this to pent-up demand among women for career opportunity and economic independence–and economic necessity. Simply put, over the last 35 years women’s increased work and earnings has been the only avenue for many families to attain or maintain economic self-sufficiency.

Though the flood of women into the work force has been beneficial, it has raised an obvious question for families: how to provide all the care, support and supervision that children need without jeopardizing family economic self-sufficiency. For working women without paid sick days, occasionally staying home when a child is ill could mean the loss of a day’s pay, or worse, the loss of a job.

It’s a terrible choice that strikes fear in the hearts of all workers; a fear grounded in workplace reality.

Consequences of Time Off

In a 2006 survey, conducted by the Center on Work Life Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, 1 in 6 workers said they or a family member had been fired, suspended, punished or threatened by an employer for taking time off to care for themselves or a family member when ill.

This is all highly counterproductive.

Healthy workers are key to a healthy national economy.

Paid sick days reduce the business costs of turnover, absenteeism and lack of productivity when workers are sick on the job. In fact, if workers were provided just seven paid sick days annually, according to information released by the National Partnership for Women and Families in 2008, our national economy would enjoy an annual net savings of more than $8 billion.

Healthy workers also contribute to a healthy public. As public health experts and our own government have repeatedly warned as we contend with H1N1 swine flu, sick workers can protect public health by staying home. But they shouldn’t have to pay the awful price of job loss and family financial instability to do so.

For all these reasons we need to pass the Healthy Families Act.

It would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days a year to recover from their own illness, to care for a sick family member, or for diagnostic and preventative care. Equally important, it would allow workers time to recover from domestic violence or sexual assault. Just as no worker should have to choose between pay and health, no worker should have to choose between pay and safety.

Need for Federal Policy

In the last three years, paid sick days legislation has passed in three cities: San Francisco, the District of Columbia and Milwaukee, where implementation is being held up by legal challenges.

This year, there are 15 active paid sick-days state campaigns. But what America needs most in these tough economic times is federal policy like the Healthy Families Act.

A broad coalition of women’s, civil rights, health, children’s, faith-based and labor organizations supports the act. It has more than 100 co-sponsors in the U.S. House, strong leadership from Ted Kennedy in the Senate and the steadfast support of the White House.

In accepting his party’s nomination last August, President Obama said, “We measure the strength of our economy by whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off and look after a sick kid without losing her job.” Later he reiterated, “Now is the time to help families with paid sick days, because nobody in America should have to choose between keeping their job and caring for a sick child or an ailing parent.”

Congress must pass the Healthy Families Act. The President must sign it.

We must ensure that all families have the tools to be as healthy and as economically self-sufficient as possible as we move toward recovery in the days ahead.

About the Author: Linda Meric is a nationally-known speaker on family-friendly workplace policy and executive director of 9to5, National Association of Women. A diverse, grassroots, membership-based nonprofit that helps strengthen women’s ability to win economic justice, 9to5 has staffed offices in Milwaukee, Denver, Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Jose.

This article originally appeared in Women’s eNews on June 8, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.

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