Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Healthy Families Act’

Family Leave Politics Move Toward Workplace Fairness and LGBT Equality

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Michelle ChenWhen a child is sick, the last thing a parent should be worried about is her next paycheck. Yet that’s the perverse dilemma that besets millions of workers in an economy that’s radically out of sync with the rhythms of modern family life. Activists are working to ease the strain by making the option of paid time off not only more generous, but also more open to all types of families, whether they’ve got one mom or two dads.

This week, the Labor Department moved to make family and medical leave policy accessible to same-sex households, showing that time off for caregivers isn’t just a perk, but a civil rights issue in a labor force rife with discrimination.

In sharp contrast to European societies, millions of American workers are burdened by a lack of guaranteed paid leave time for sickness or family emergency. Meanwhile, even those limited, inflexible policies are especially punitive for same-sex couples, largely shutting them out of federal law. Same-sex partners are thus denied both full economic citizenship as well as the dignity of recognition of their loving relationships.

The Labor Department plans to clarify the rules of the Clinton-era Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows many employees (but not all) up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a sick child. Under the Labor Department’s revision, if Mary’s kid gets sick, her partner Jane could stay at home to take care of the child, even if Mary and Jane can’t officially get married.

According to the advocacy group Family Equality Council, most children of same-sex partners do not live in states that legally recognize their relationship to their parents, and in the states that do, parents are generally “unable to extend health benefits to their kids or to make medical decisions on their behalf in the event of an emergency.” An estimated two million children nationwide are in the care of LGBT families.

The new reading of the legislation would build on other baby steps for LGBT rights under the Obama administration, including plans to extend hospital visitation rights to same-sex couples, the incorporation of same-sex partners into the Violence Against Women Act, and perhaps a repeal of the Pentagon’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. All these measures inch toward equality in the absence of sweeping legislation, or a court ruling, that grants same-sex marriage rights.

But in their push for visibility in the workplace, same-sex partners also push the debate beyond marriage itself. A more inclusive definition of family dovetails with the gender justice struggle for the huge swath of the workforce that doesn’t want to choose between earning money and caring for family.

Rights advocates have long campaigned for local, state and federal paid leave programs. Sherry Leiwant of A Better Balance, which has supported paid leave initiatives in several states and cities, including New York and San Francisco, told In These Times that the group includes same-sex domestic partners in its campaigns:

It is very important to us that domestic partners be included in bills extending paid family leave benefits and paid sick days to workers…. Working with the National Partnership for Women and Families we have created model statutes for both paid family leave and paid sick time and they define family member to include domestic partners.

While the Obama administration’s FMLA clarification applies specifically to children, the model concept recognizes same-sex partners as caregivers and as adult family members entitled to care.

While the benefits of paid family and sick leave are clear, the widespread lack of it deepens the racial, gender and income stratification of the workforce. A study by the Center for American Progress and U.C. Hastings Center for WorkLife Law suggests that a culture of overwork and inequality corrodes social stability:

Discrimination against workers with family responsibilities, illegal throughout Europe,  is forbidden only indirectly here. Americans also lack paid sick days, limits on mandatory overtime, the right to request work-time flexibility without retaliation, and proportional wages for part-time work. All exist elsewhere in the developed world.

So it should come as no surprise that Americans report sharply higher levels of work-family conflict than do citizens of other industrialized countries.  Fully 90 percent of American mothers and 95 percent of American fathers report work-family conflict. And yet our public policymakers in Congress continue to sit on their hands when it comes to enacting laws to help Americans reconcile their family responsibilities with those at work.

The Family Equality Council and other groups seek a two-pronged expansion of the FMLA through the Healthy Families Act. That bill, according to spokesperson Kevin Nix–

allows employees to take time off for “any individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.” The “affinity” language is responsive to all kinds of family and caretaking configurations, and for LGBT families specifically who live in states where they can’t marry and can’t adopt the child they are raising, it means they would still qualify to take time off to care for each other when they get sick.

So whether the family member is a partner of the same gender, a grandma, or an adopted son, the law would ideally embrace a progressive concept of emotional kinship. Whatever kind of relationships give meaning to a worker’s life, an equitable paid leave policy would ensure that in hard times, everyone has the right to be there for a loved one.

This article was originally published in Working In These Times.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Racewire.org. She can be reached at michellechen@inthesetimes.com

Paid Sick Days: A Social and Moral Imperative

Friday, September 4th, 2009

(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. 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!)

*****

The first Labor Day, more than 100 years ago, was not a day of barbeques and relaxation.  It was a day when 10,000 workers marched in New York to secure basic rights for American workers.

Working conditions have vastly improved in the decades since that historic day, but too many working Americans still do not enjoy a basic right that is mandated by law in nearly every other nation in the industrialized world.  Nearly one half of American workers – almost 60 million of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues – do not have the benefit of a single paid sick day to care for themselves or their loved ones. 

Low-wage workers, who struggle to earn enough just to survive, are even less likely to have paid sick days.  If they or their children get sick, they have to make an impossible choice.  If they stay home, they will lose a day’s wages or even their jobs – a price most cannot afford to pay.

What are families without paid sick days to do?  This flu season, the White House estimates that one half of Americans will be infected by the H1N1, or swine flu, virus.  The federal government has recommended that anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms stay home, and that parents keep sick kids out of school.  Who will watch their sick children if they can’t afford to take a day off? How can we curb the spread of this virus unless sick workers can stay home without putting their families in financial jeopardy?

This Labor Day weekend, while you are enjoying holiday barbeques and picnics, remember that many of the people you meet every day working in your grocery store, your favorite restaurant, and even your own company may not have the basic right to paid sick days.  Then call your legislators, and tell them to support the Healthy Families Act, a federal bill that would require employers with more than 15 employees to provide up to 7 paid sick days for their workers.  With your help, we can build a stronger, healthier, more family-friendly nation.

About the Author: Melissa Josephs is Director of Equal Opportunity Policy for Women Employed. Since 1973 Women Employed has been a leading advocate for fair workplaces and economic opportunity for all American workers. As part of this effort, we promote policies that allow for a work-family balance, including the Healthy Workplace Act, which would guarantee paid sick days for all Illinois workers. Women Employed is leading the Illinois Paid Leave Coalition to bring family and medical leave to more working families. Working with public officials and organizations, we have developed a paid sick days program in Illinois to help workers who cannot afford to take unpaid leaves to care for themselves or ill family members, or go to medical appointments.  As Director of Equal Opportunity Policy, Melissa Josephs leads Women Employed’s efforts to secure paid sick days for Illinois workers.

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!)

*****

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.

Would You Like a Side of Swine Flu with Your Order?

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

In President Obama’s “first 100 days” news conference, he gave good, common-sense advice:

– “Stay home from work if you’re sick; and keep your children home from school if they’re sick.”

But this advice is about as helpful as being told to eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away when nearly 50 percent of private-sector workers have no paid sick days. This statistic jumps to four out of every five low-income worker going without paid sick days. Overall, 57 million private-sector workers in this country have no paid sick days, and 94 million cannot use their paid sick days to care for a sick child [Source: Public Welfare Foundation]. There is a bad joke somewhere in there about the 48 million Americans going without health insurance not needing the sick days to go to the doctor, but the punch line is tragically unfunny.

The survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago, found that when workers took time off for illness or to care for a sick family member, one in six say they were fired, disciplined or threatened by their employer. Another study done by Harvard and McGill University researchers finds the United States ranks at the bottom of 21 high-income nations in providing paid parental leave for workers.

In fact, 145 countries guarantee paid sick days; the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world with the most productive workers, is not one of them. We can do better.

Bottom line – employment law and policy have consequences far beyond the relationship of employees and their employers. If we want our co-workers to take time off to recover from illness and not jeopardize exposure to colleagues, if we want the ability to strategically close a few schools when flu cases are identified and keep children at home, then we need a policy to support it or else being told to ‘stay home from work’ becomes meaningless.

Preparing for pandemic illness requires stocking up on vaccines, improving access to health care and tracking cases, as well as giving people the ability to take sick days. The Healthy Families Act is a federal bill that will let workers accrue up to seven paid sick days a year that they could use to recover from illness or care for a sick family member.

Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, Corporate America considers the right to seven paid sick days a year as “paid vacation.” These are some of the same folks that are ‘championing’ workers’ rights’ to a management ordered secret ballot election for union representation. In case I’m being too subtle – workers’ advocates are championing the Employee Free Choice Act so that employees may collectively bargain for benefits such as paid sick days. Corporate America is threatened by a more unionized work force because it jeopardizes unchecked greed; and is fighting the legislation making it easier to form unions under the guise of protecting workers’ rights just as they are lobbying against the Healthy Families Act. This is a side point to the one I’m making about sick days, but I think worthy of consideration.

Paid sick days are a basic workplace standard. Or, more accurately, should be a basic workplace standard. And to make the point personal, do you want your restaurant food handler working on the day he has the flu? How about your child’s daycare worker?

It’s time to pass the Healthy Families Act. You can get involved with a number of groups. I recommend the National Partnership for Women & Families as well as the Everyone Gets Sick online rally.

Eileen Toback is a political strategist and labor relations expert. To read more of Eileen’s commentary on labor issues check out unionmaiden.wordpress.com. If you have a question for Eileen, contact her via eileentoback@gmail.com.

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