I grew up believing that America is the greatest country on earth. Such belief is easy to commit to until you realize that greatness can be quantified.
At least, sort of. I’ve already covered the fact that America doesn’t even make the Top 10 when it comes to the “quality of our democracy.” And if you’re paying attention to the news that matters, that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways that America is falling behind the rest of the developed world.
The bone I’m picking today is paid and unpaid sick leave in corporate America—or, more accurately, our almost total lack of it. According to a recent, 90-page report entitled “Failing Its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the US,” this oversight (if you can even call it that) is hurting the people who matter the most: children. Particularly, children belonging to middle-class or poor families.
The report is based on interviews with 64 families from across the US, which were carried out and published by Human Rights Watch, and focused on the health and financial impact of America’s striking lack of paid family leave after adoption, childbirth, or illness. It suggests that this oversight (there’s that insufficient word again) effectively amounts to workplace discrimination against new parents.
It’s a conclusion that’s pretty easy to agree with. American employers have historically been hostile toward breastfeeding considerations, flexible scheduling, and reasonable allowances for paid and unpaid sick leave.
That’s all pretty general, so let’s get specific: the parents interviewed by HRW said that a lack of sick leave resulted in “dangerous” delays in getting their children immunized, postpartum depression for new mothers, and a host of other health problems. For those parents who opted to use unpaid sick leave to deal with family health crises, spiraling debt became an all too common occurrence, as did an increasing dependence on public assistance programs.
Is the full scope of the problem becoming apparent? We’re not just talking about individual parents, children, and families; the people we’re failing to provide for ultimately end up adding to the burden placed on the healthcare industry, and on other taxpayers. Nothing happens in a vacuum.
America Can’t Afford It
HRW deputy director Janet Walsh confirmed that this issue is one that should be of concern to every American policymaker: ”We can’t afford not to guarantee paid family leave under law—especially in these tough economic times…The US is actually missing out by failing to ensure that all workers have access to paid family leave. Countries that have these programs show productivity gains, reduced turnover costs, and health care savings.”
In 1993, we signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This act allows workers in the US to take unpaid medical leaves in the event that a child or another member of the family falls ill with a serious medical condition. Currently, though, only about 11% of US workers have access to paid medical leave. When you isolate only the lowest-income workers in America, this figure drops to an unconscionable 3%.
As it stands right now, there are only two states that have paid family leave insurance programs: California and New Jersey. You may be wondering, and you’re right to ask: Who pays for this? Is it the employer? The public? Does this place a tax burden on the American public?
The answer to that last question is no. These insurance programs are paid for entirely by small payroll tax contributions made by the employees themselves.
So there’s that argument, thoroughly debunked. What else you got?
Addressing the Dissenters
The problem with leaving human dignity in the hands of business owners is that they consistently fail us. We are leaving the well-being of millions of Americans up to the whim of our employers—and they’re proving very poor stewards. They cite all of the usual reasons, including worsening productivity and lower profits. But the truth, for those interested, is very different: in a study of the California program, the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the City University of New York found that the effects of these programs on profit and productivity have been negligible.
And what about our small businesses? The ones purportedly being killed off by the Affordable Care Act and all of these other pesky matters of human dignity? It turns out they’re doing just fine; the same study found that small businesses are actually less likely than larger corporations to experience negative effects from such programs.
In other words, we’re running out of excuses. In other parts of the world—particularly Europe’s Nordic countries—people are waking to the fact that protecting the well-being of our families is not just good public policy—it’s common sense.
Progress for a Change
I don’t have kids. But I may someday, and I’d like to live in a world where I’m not left scrambling for solutions if one of them should pick up a bug at school. Why should we live in a world where the apple cart of our livelihood is upset because of factors wholly out of our control? Are we meant to live in bubbles for all time to stave off the risk of illness?
These are the questions we shouldn’t have to ask, but do—regularly. America is one of the few developed countries in the world (though I use that phrase more and more loosely in referring to our republic) that has not yet recognized paid (or even unpaid!) sick days as a matter of human dignity. I’ll stop just short of calling it a human right, because gainful employment is itself not a right. But an essential human dignity? Surely that’s terminology we can all agree on.
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