The first “labor day” celebration was a march—10,000 workers took an unpaid day off to demonstrate in New York’s Union Square in 1882 to promote the union cause. Now, the federal holiday is supposed to be a day of paying tribute to the American worker and recognizing the contributions that unions have made to American prosperity. It should remind us that we didn’t always have an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, unemployment compensation, pensions, or other reforms that are fundamental to the quality of life we enjoy as Americans.
Most of us probably spent Labor Day at a barbecue or an end-of-summer sale rather than a march, but we can’t forget that there’s still a lot to do to ensure fairness in the workplace. Today, too many workers can’t take a sick day without losing their pay or jeopardizing their jobs. A benefit considered standard by most professionals—paid sick time—is unavailable to millions of lower-paid workers, including 22 million women.
At Women Employed, we listen to the stories of women who have to choose between going to work sick and paying the bills. They have to send sick children to school to avoid losing a day’s pay—or losing their jobs. Some work for companies with sick time policies, but they’re told by supervisors that if they take a sick day they’re entitled to, they shouldn’t come back. They face impossible choices. They’re among the 48 percent of private-sector workers who don’t have a single paid sick day to use for themselves or to care for an ill family member.
And it’s not just these workers who are paying a price. When workers come to work sick, they infect other people. So do the kids they have to send to school sick. It’s a public health issue when people preparing food, working in hospitals, or coming to your office to fix the copier feel the pressure to go to work when they’re ill. Experts estimate that “presenteeism”—coming to work sick—is costly for employers in terms of lost productivity. And research shows that paid sick leave policies reduce the rate of contagious infections by ensuring that sick workers stay home.
Bills have been introduced in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to establish basic sick leave requirements. The bills require employers who do not already provide paid sick leave to allow employees to accrue up to seven sick days per year that could be used when a worker is ill or needs to care for an ill family member, as well as for medical appointments. Leave under these laws would be earned over the year so employers would only pay if and when workers accrued time off and needed it. These measures are modest and reasonable ways to improve the quality of our worklives and ensure better health for our families and communities. It’s time to add this simple guarantee to the list of workplace reforms that we enjoy today. Urge your elected representatives to honor workers by passing a guarantee of paid sick leave. Next Labor Day, we’d really have something to celebrate.
About the Author: Anne Ladky is Executive Director of Women Employed, a 35-year-old organization whose mission is to improve women’s economic status. Women Employed is widely recognized for its groundbreaking work to ensure enforcement of affirmative action requirements, outlaw sexual harassment, and promote family-friendly policies. Today, Women Employed focuses on women in low-paying jobs; its priorities are to improve workplaces by fighting for paid sick time, fair schedules, and better pay; and expand access to and improve the quality of post-secondary education and training. Ladky was a founding member of Women Employed, joined the staff in 1977, and was named Executive Director in 1985. She is a nationally recognized expert on women’s employment issues, equal opportunity, and workforce development. For more information on Women Employed, visit www.womenemployed.org.