President Obama Is Urging Congress To Provide Better Paid Sick Leave To American Workers

President Obama is urging Congress to pass legislation today that would improve on America’s sparse and globally uncompetitive sick pay laws. It would require six weeks of sick pay for new parents for federal employees and an additional six weeks of parental leave, as well as obligating employers with more than 15 employees to provide seven sick days a year.

The latter is an expansion on the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to let eligible employees take up to 12 unpaid weeks off of work. But they’re unpaid, so low-income Americans can’t practically take advantage of that benefit.

President Obama wants to dedicate $2.2 billion to state efforts to establish better paid leave programs, and the Labor Department is kicking in $1 million to help local governments research how to implement those programs effectively.

A self-described “free-market loon” at Forbes opposes this, of course, because free-market loons hate poor people and think they should stop whining (or just don’t care about poor people; potayto potahto). The White House statement on the Healthy Families Act was that they hoped that it would help to increase productivity. How does not being at work increase productivity, free-market loons ask? My answer would be an anecdote: I got a very, very serious sinus infection on New Year’s Day, 2013. I started a new job on January 3rd. I did not know that that job was going to be in a refrigerator. I went in to work for my first day, worked the full shift, and by the end of it I was shaking uncontrollably, hyperventilating, and having moderate-to-severe vertigo. Was I productive? Absolutely not. I had no choice but to take a week off, which was unpaid, and I was penalized for it on my personnel record on top of not receiving pay. When I came back, healthy, I was my normal, productive self, and I wasn’t at risk of getting anyone else sick.

And that’s not to speak of injuries, which many low-income workers have to ignore and let fester if they want to keep earning a paycheck. Many injuries can become permanent if they’re not treated (I know something about this from personal experience, as well). Muscular and other structural injuries absolutely slow you down, and being able to take time off to let them heal absolutely increases your productivity in the long run.

And then there’s the birth of a child, which I’ve heard can be tremendously disruptive to a new parent’s life. That’s particularly the case for low-income families, in which both parents need to earn money in order to best support their child. Without paid parental leave, new parents can’t get into a routine with their children, can’t address health issues resulting from the process of birthing a baby, can’t make sure that the baby is healthy before having to go right back to a job that will inevitably be interrupted by the needs of parenting.

This isn’t rocket science, is it? It really and truly is lunacy to look only ever at the short term in your economic outlook, and to believe that requiring everyone to work all the time with no support regardless of the circumstances is actually good for the economy. Human bodies are not actually perfect; they’re organic machines, and as with any machine, with wear they break down. We perform our jobs with those machines, and trying to do a job with a worn-down, poorly-maintained machine is ultimately going to result in either bad or slow work. How is that good for the economy?

On the bright side, it’s wonderful to see the President pushing for a more gender-equal parental leave law — if you leave it up to individual companies, they’re more likely, historically, to believe that women should have maternity benefits but men don’t need more than sparse paternity benefits. And while yes, of course, women’s bodies need to heal after birth, they also need their partners’ support so that they can heal and take care of the child. America is one of the few developed countries in the world that hasn’t come around to the conclusion that its workforce needs to have their personal lives accommodated from time to time in order to work well; it’s good to see us taking even baby steps to get on track.




[Image via Getty]

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