People For the American Way

Working Families Don’t Need Empty Promises—They Need Paid Sick Days

People For in Action
Working Families Don’t Need Empty Promises—They Need Paid Sick Days

On December 6, the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing entitled “Workplace Leave Policies: Opportunities and Challenges for Employers and Working Families.” At the core of the hearing was a Republican proposal known as the Workflex in the 21st Century Act, which would undermine progress made at the state and local level on paid sick days, create uncertainty for working families, and allow large companies to write their own rules. Working families don’t need another empty GOP promise like this one. They need legislation like the Healthy Families Act, which would not only guarantee paid sick days that can be used to address a range of personal and family health concerns, but would also create “safe” days for domestic violence survivors. People For the American Way joined the National Partnership for Women & Families and many other organizations in writing to Congress about these bills. You can read our letters in full below.

Oppose the Workflex in the 21st Century Act (H.R. 4219)

Dear Members of Congress:

The undersigned organizations urge you to oppose H.R. 4219, misleadingly named the “Workflex in the 21st Century Act.” This misguided, complicated and confusing proposal would eviscerate state and local progress for working families, erode existing legal protections, threaten local democracy and jeopardize public health. It would allow large corporations to evade state and local laws, creating a giant loophole that would mean uncertainty for workers and an uneven playing field for smaller companies.

  • H.R. 4219 would undermine state and local progress and preempt the effectiveness of state and local innovation—undermining democracy and local control.

Forty locations in the United States, including eight states, have or will soon have paid sick days laws in place. Largely as a result of these laws, more than 13 million working people have gained new access to paid sick days, dramatically improving private sector access with especially large gains for lower-wage workers.1 H.R. 4219 may take away paid sick days guarantees for these 13 million people and impede progress in other locations. Nationally, nearly one-third of the private sector workforce— at least 37 million workers— do not currently have the right to earn paid sick days.2

H.R. 4219 would stall or reverse state and local progress on paid sick days and fair work schedules. A growing body of research shows that paid sick days laws support working families’ economic security,3 individuals’ ability to access health care4 and the public’s health.5 Fair scheduling laws do the same, by granting working people the predictability and input into their work schedules that they need to go to medical appointments, arrange child care, advance their education, and care for their families. Paid sick days and fair scheduling standards co-exist with— and often boost— economic and business growth.6

H.R. 4219 is an attack on democracy, local governance and innovation. Neither state governments nor the federal government should undermine the ability of voters or their elected representatives to pass public health and safety laws, including laws that establish workplace protections. States and localities have a long history of serving as laboratories, spearheading public policies that lead to national standards. H.R. 4219 would thwart such state and local innovation and undo local election outcomes.

  • H.R. 4219 would create uncertainty, unpredictability and inequities for working families.

H.R. 4219 is not a “paid leave” law, as its proponents claim. Real paid sick time laws provide predictability and a guarantee of dedicated time, ensuring that workers can use the paid sick time they earn to care for themselves and their loved ones when short-term illnesses or preventive care needs arise. H.R. 4219 would give corporations the unilateral option to deny workers the ability to use their time, thus eliminating these guarantees. The paid time off requirements in the bill that proponents claim are “generous” are no more than— and in many cases less than— companies are offering now.7 Once employers subtract  up to six federal holidays from those minimum requirements, as H.R. 4219 allows, employees would be left with as few as six guaranteed paid days off for illness, vacation and personal time. This is nowhere near the time needed for paid family and medical leave— extended time to care for a new child or a serious personal or family illness.

H.R. 4219 would eliminate the certainty and flexibility that real paid sick time and fair scheduling laws provide. H.R. 4219 would deny protections that ensure people have a voice in their work schedules and enough notice of work hours to plan the rest of their lives. It would rob employees of their rights under state and local laws to earn paid sick days and use them as needed— and it would give their employers the power to decide when, whether, for what reason and at what cost employees can use paid time off. Tellingly, according to survey data from the Society and Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) affiliate, the Families and Work Institute, “38 percent of employers report that supervisors consider employees’ reasons for requesting paid time off when deciding whether they will be allowed to take the requested time off. So, in over a third of workplaces, employees’ ability to use their paid time off is affected by how or for whom they plan to use it.8 (Emphasis in original) Right now, many employers do not allow employees to use their sick time to care for a sick family member or to get a physical. H.R. 4219 would allow those practices to continue.

By eliminating important guarantees, H.R. 4219 would disproportionately harm women and families. Many paid sick days laws guarantee workers the right to earn paid “safe” time to deal with the aftermath of domestic or sexual violence. Many also include definitions of family that reflect the diversity of family structures in our country. Fair workweek laws recognize that working people need advance notice of their work schedules, and that people have the right to compensation when employers change schedules at the last minute. These laws set common sense baseline standards that benefit workers and their families, public health and the economy. H.R. 4219 would eliminate these guarantees at employers’ discretion.

H.R. 4219 would eliminate non-retaliation protections for workers who need to take sick time or request work schedules that work for their lives. Paid sick time laws provide guarantees that workers will not face adverse consequences at their jobs for taking paid sick time. This is important because, in the private sector, as of 2011, half (49 percent) of employees reported being subject to an employer’s disciplinary absence control policies.9 Many fair scheduling laws similarly protect working people from retaliation for requesting particular work schedules. H.R. 4219 would eliminate protections against this type of retaliation and do nothing to stop employers from disciplining workers who have unpredictable illness-related absences or need to modify their work schedules to accommodate caregiving responsibilities, a second job or other important obligations.

  • Large companies should not be able to write their own rules.

Employers can and should comply with state and local laws. State and local paid sick days and fair scheduling laws are structured similarly to one another and largely have the same key components. Multi-city and multi-state employers are already accustomed to complying with differing state and local laws in various areas, including zoning, wage and hour, business licenses and taxes, and keeping paperwork for local authorities. The answer for  corporations seeking to simplify compliance is to create company-wide policies that match the strongest standards in effect, not to undermine those standards altogether.

H.R. 4219 would disadvantage small businesses. This is a proposal written at the behest of and for the benefit of large corporations, allowing them to buy their way out of compliance with state and local laws. It would hurt the communities and customers that small businesses serve and give larger businesses further advantages in the marketplace.

We urge you to reject H.R. 4219. Working families do need paid time to care for themselves and their loved ones and flexibility in their jobs, but this unworkable, unfair and inequitable proposal would not guarantee either one. Better solutions, such as a real national paid sick days guarantee and real fair scheduling proposals, exist. True champions of working people across the country will not be fooled by the H.R. 4219 sham.

You can download this letter, with signers and endnotes, here.

Support the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1516/S. 636)

Dear Members of Congress:

We, the undersigned organizations, urge you to support the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1516/S. 636), which would create a national paid sick and safe days standard.

The Healthy Families Act would guarantee working people the ability to earn up to seven paid sick days a year to recover from short-term illnesses, access preventive care, care for a sick family member or seek assistance related to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. Without paid sick days, workers are forced to make impossible choices when illness strikes: stay home, lose pay and risk their jobs; or go to work sick, jeopardize their health and spread illness to their co-workers and communities. Paid sick and safe days help keep families financially secure, workplaces and communities healthy and productive, and businesses and the economy strong.

Forty locations in the United States, including eight states, have or will soon have paid sick days laws in place. These laws have helped to dramatically expand paid sick days coverage to more than 13 million workers who did not previously have paid sick time. A strong, growing body of evidence from jurisdictions that have had laws in place for years shows that paid sick days benefit workers and families. These studies also show virtually no adverse effects—and some positive effects—on businesses and local economies.1

Despite substantial increases in access to paid sick days as a result of new laws, approximately one-third of the private sector workforce in the United States—at least 37 million people—cannot earn paid sick days to use when they get sick.2 Millions more cannot earn time to care for a sick child or family member.3 Lower-wage workers, workers of color and hourly workers are least likely to have access to paid sick time.4

Unpaid, unprotected days off have stark consequences for working families. For a family without paid sick days, just 3.3 days of lost pay due to illness are equivalent to an entire month of health care, on average, and 4.5 days are equivalent to an entire month of food.5 Nearly one-quarter of U.S. adults (23 percent) report they have lost a job or have been threatened with job loss for taking time off work due to illness or to care for a sick child or relative.6

Paid sick days make business and economic sense. When sick workers are able to stay home, the spread of disease slows and workplaces are both healthier and more productive. Paid sick days also reduce “presenteeism,” the productivity lost when employees work sick, which is estimated to cost our national economy approximately $160 billion annually ($219.8 billion after adjusting for inflation) and surpasses the cost of absenteeism.7 Paid sick days also reduce workplace injuries: Workers who earn paid sick days are 28 percent less likely than workers who don’t earn paid sick days to be injured on the job—with an even greater difference among workers in high-risk occupations.8

Grave public health consequences can result when workers do not have paid sick days. Workers in jobs that require frequent contact with the public, including those in food preparation and service, personal home care and child care, are among the least likely to have paid sick days and the most likely to be unable to afford to take an unpaid day away from work.9 Without paid sick days, workers are forced to take unpaid leave or work sick. Workers without paid sick days are more likely to report going to work with a contagious illness like the flu.10 This puts workers, customers and businesses in danger.

Ensuring all workers can earn paid sick days would significantly reduce health care expenditures. People without paid sick days are more likely to seek treatment at an emergency department because they can’t take time off to get care during regular business hours.11 If all workers had paid sick days, 1.3 million emergency room visits could be prevented each year, saving $1.1 billion annually. More than half of these savings—$517 million—would accrue to taxpayer-funded health insurance programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.12 Workers with paid sick days are more likely to get regular cancer screenings and preventive care,13 holding down health care costs and improving long-term health.

Paid sick days enable working parents to care for their children when they are sick—shortening recovery time and reducing community contagion. Unfortunately, more than half of working parents are unable to earn at least five paid sick days to use to care for a sick child.14 Parents without paid sick days are nearly twice as likely as parents with paid sick days to send a sick child to school or day care.15 When parents have no choice but to do so, children’s health and educational attainment is put at risk—as is the health of classmates, teachers, school staff and child care providers.

Women are disproportionately affected by the nation’s lack of paid sick days, which jeopardizes the economic stability of families increasingly dependent on women’s wages. Women make up nearly half the workforce16 and nearly two-thirds of U.S. mothers are breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families.17 Yet, overwhelmingly, mothers still have primary responsibility for selecting their children’s doctors, accompanying children to appointments and getting them recommended care.18 Moreover, nearly four in 10 employed mothers (39 percent) say they alone must miss work when a sick child needs to stay home, compared to 3 percent of working fathers. Among these mothers, 60 percent are not paid when they take that time, up significantly from 45 percent in 2004.19

Like paid sick days, paid “safe” days are critical for workers’ productivity, security and well-being. Ninety-six percent of employed survivors of domestic violence say they experience problems at work related to the violence.20 And one-quarter to one-half of domestic violence survivors report losing a job in part due to the violence.21 Because survivors of domestic violence are at increased risk of harm during and shortly after separating from an abusive partner,22 it is essential that they be able to find shelter, file restraining orders, attend court dates or receive counseling to prevent further abuse and continue working.

The Healthy Families Act would strengthen workers and families, businesses and the economy. It would guarantee workers across the country the right to earn paid sick and safe days no matter where they live, bringing the rest of the United States in line with the states and cities that have passed these laws and much of the rest of the world.

We urge you to demonstrate your strong commitment to our nation’s working families by supporting the Healthy Families Act. Thank you.

You can download this letter, with signers and endnotes, here.