In the U.S., paid sick time and medical leave are kind of hard to come by

I had plans to blog about what some of the state and federal outcomes of the Nov. 6 election might mean for us women. I wanted to talk about the need for marriage equality, the fact that there are a record number of women in the U.S. Senate (omg!), and what the possibilities of a Democrat-controlled legislature combined with a Democrat governor might entail. However, when I woke up this morning at 7:40 AM because my kids overslept and thus my human alarm clocks failed for the first time in many, many months, I decided that today I would rather blog about how much it sucks to be sick for weeks on end because my kids and I are passing illnesses back and forth and everywhere (which is why we all overslept, because we’re all getting over a nasty cold), and how lucky I am that I work at the University of Minnesota and have sick leave embedded in my salary. Whew, sorry, incredibly long run-on sentence.

As a U of M employee, my sick time is included in my salary, up to a certain point, when I would have to use short-term disability. I’m not quite sure when that point is, but I’m sure my boss will let me know. This means if my kid is sick and can’t go to daycare, or I’m feeling dead inside and cannot be economically productive, I can stay home without having to take vacation or losing pay. I also have a part-time job at a daycare center in addition to my full-time job, and it’s considerably more difficult needing time off there (where I’m paid hourly, I’m part-time, and my absence will directly affect the clients’ well-being), though it’s not impossible—I just don’t get paid and if I do it a lot, I might lose my job.

But what if that was my only job? What if me simply not getting paid for a day or two because my kid is sick and I can’t go to work means that I can’t make rent or I can’t buy groceries for a few days? What if me simply not getting paid for a day or two because my kid is sick means that I lie about his illness and send him to daycare or school anyway, because I can’t afford to miss work, and then his illness spreads everywhere and he has a miserable day? Or I go to work sick and spread my germs everywhere because if I don’t go, I could lose my job?

Being Healthy is Good!

Having paid time off to allow people to stay home when they’re sick or their kids are sick is just good policy and practice for health and economic reasons. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families’ campaign “Support Sick Days” website:

  • Adults without paid sick days are 1.5 times more likely than adults with paid sick days to report going to work with a contagious illness like the flu or a viral infection and risk infecting others.
  • More than ONE THIRD (37%) of working women in business with 15+ employees are not able to take a paid sick day when they or a family member are ill.
  • Nearly HALF (49%) of all Latino employees in establishments with 15+ employees have no access to paid sick days.

Additionally, women are less likely than men to receive paid sick days, and yet “80 percent of mothers assume responsibility for their children’s doctor visits, meaning they are more likely to need time off work for a child’s illness than male workers.”

By providing paid sick leave, employers would reduce turnover (who wants to leave a job with great benefits?) and increase productivity (ever gone to work sick? It sucks, and you don’t really work.). Additionally, paid sick leave would greatly benefit victims of domestic violence by providing them a way to seek help when they most need it.

National and State Paid Sick Leave

Interestingly enough (or not, really, considering our country’s value of being economically productive all the time and our support for business over people), there is no federal law that requires non-governmental (private) businesses to offer paid time off for employee illness or to care for sick family members. Federal employees are somewhat protected, with no leave limits for their own personal medical needs and up to 13 paid sick days per year (depending on their employment status) for general family medical needs.  All states have paid sick leave for at least some of their employees (but not all employees).

Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Really, the only law that applies to (almost) all companies, government and private, is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows for up to 12 weeks of UNPAID sick leave in order to care for yourself or a family member (strictly defined) with a serious health condition or to take care of one’s newborn baby or newly adopted/fostered child (there are additional benefits for military families). The positive side of FMLA is that if you take advantage of this, you cannot lose your job or benefits as a result. The negative sides are that it is unpaid and you have to continue paying for your share of the benefits your employer provides (as in, the amount that is normally taken out of your paycheck).  Additionally, before you can use it you have to be eligible to use it: Eligibility is dependent on the size of the business (50+ employees in a 75-mile radius in 20+ workweeks in the current year), but basically one must have worked at the (covered) establishment for at least one year AND 1,250 hours (amounts to an average of 24 hours per week).

Let me give you my personal example with FMLA: With my first pregnancy, I was not eligible. At the time of my son’s birth, I had worked at my place of employment for almost two years; however, the first year I was part of the AmeriCorps VISTA program, so technically my place of employment was not actually my employer. The second year I was there full-time, so I easily met the hours requirement, but I missed the year requirement by a couple of weeks. So I lost my job and benefits after I gave birth, and there was nothing I could do.

With my second son, I was eligible for FMLA at my then place of employment. I was prepared for not getting paid for 12 weeks, but what I didn’t realize was that when I returned to work, I would have a bill of over $2000 for those 12 weeks of benefits I received while not working. So I didn’t receive a paycheck for two to three additional months because not only was I paying off my share of benefits received during my FMLA leave, but I of course had to continue contributing to my benefits. That sucked.

U.S. vs Them

Did you know that we are one of just a few countries in the entire world that do not offer paid sick leave in some form? Not only that, but we are the ONLY so-called ‘developed’ nation in the world that doesn’t have a law providing for paid sick leave. There have been attempts in the past, such as the Healthy Families Act, that would have required employers nationwide to provide paid sick leave in some form, but such attempts have never made it out of the U.S. Congress. The 113th U.S. Congress will begin on or around January 3, 2013, and I’m sure the Healthy Families Act or something similar will be introduced again.

As a gainfully-employed mother and a member of the human species, I wholeheartedly support paid sick leave for ALL employees as sound public health and economic policy.

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