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Paid Sick Days: A Social and Moral Imperative

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(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

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The first Labor Day, more than 100 years ago, was not a day of barbeques and relaxation.  It was a day when 10,000 workers marched in New York to secure basic rights for American workers.

Working conditions have vastly improved in the decades since that historic day, but too many working Americans still do not enjoy a basic right that is mandated by law in nearly every other nation in the industrialized world.  Nearly one half of American workers – almost 60 million of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues – do not have the benefit of a single paid sick day to care for themselves or their loved ones. 

Low-wage workers, who struggle to earn enough just to survive, are even less likely to have paid sick days.  If they or their children get sick, they have to make an impossible choice.  If they stay home, they will lose a day’s wages or even their jobs – a price most cannot afford to pay.

What are families without paid sick days to do?  This flu season, the White House estimates that one half of Americans will be infected by the H1N1, or swine flu, virus.  The federal government has recommended that anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms stay home, and that parents keep sick kids out of school.  Who will watch their sick children if they can’t afford to take a day off? How can we curb the spread of this virus unless sick workers can stay home without putting their families in financial jeopardy?

This Labor Day weekend, while you are enjoying holiday barbeques and picnics, remember that many of the people you meet every day working in your grocery store, your favorite restaurant, and even your own company may not have the basic right to paid sick days.  Then call your legislators, and tell them to support the Healthy Families Act, a federal bill that would require employers with more than 15 employees to provide up to 7 paid sick days for their workers.  With your help, we can build a stronger, healthier, more family-friendly nation.

About the Author: Melissa Josephs is Director of Equal Opportunity Policy for Women Employed. Since 1973 Women Employed has been a leading advocate for fair workplaces and economic opportunity for all American workers. As part of this effort, we promote policies that allow for a work-family balance, including the Healthy Workplace Act, which would guarantee paid sick days for all Illinois workers. Women Employed is leading the Illinois Paid Leave Coalition to bring family and medical leave to more working families. Working with public officials and organizations, we have developed a paid sick days program in Illinois to help workers who cannot afford to take unpaid leaves to care for themselves or ill family members, or go to medical appointments.  As Director of Equal Opportunity Policy, Melissa Josephs leads Women Employed’s efforts to secure paid sick days for Illinois workers.


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9to5: Celebrating Labor Day by Working for Change

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(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

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For far too many women, work isn’t working. That’s why passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is so critical.

Women still earn only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men – and for African American women and Latinas the gap is even wider. Far too many working women labor in jobs that do not provide a family-supporting income. Far too many women, particularly low-wage women, lack paid sick days to care for themselves during occasional illness. And far too many lack even a single paid sick day to care for a sick child.

As we mark Labor Day 2009 – a day to pay tribute to the historic achievements and contributions of workers — it’s time to call attention to this fact:  Union membership is one sure way to address gender-based workplace disparities and unionization can provide important economic security for low-wage women and their families.

According to “Unions and Upward Mobility for Women Workers,” a December 2008 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in the 15 lowest-paying occupations, union members not only earned more than their non-union counterparts, they were also 26 percentage points more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 23 percentage points more likely to have a pension plan.

“For women, joining a union makes as much sense as going to college,” said John Schmitt, author of the upward mobility study. “All else equal, joining a union raises a woman’s wage as much as a full-year of college, and being a member of a union raises the chances a woman has health insurance by more than earning a four-year college degree.”

As the entire country debates health reform, it’s important to note that health insurance is just one of the positive workplace standards unions can provide for working women. Union representation is also one of the strongest predictors of family-flexible workplace policies.

More than 60 million American workers lack a single paid sick day to care for themselves when ill, and nearly 100 million workers lack paid sick time to care for an ill child. Especially in this economy, no one should lose a job just because they or a loved one gets sick. Companies with 30 percent or more unionized workers have been documented to be more likely than non-union companies to provide paid time off to care for sick children (65 percent compared to 46 percent).

So, how can women work for workplace change?

Speak out in support of the Employee Free Choice Act. EFCA would put the choice of how to form a union back into the hands of workers. A free choice means that workers would have the option of unionization if a majority of them sign up. EFCA will protect women and men who join together to negotiate with their employers for health care, fair wages, retirement security and paid sick days.

It’s critical that we pass this federal legislation. Tell your family, friends, colleagues and neighbors about EFCA. And, most important, let your members of Congress know that you support it and expect their support as well.

On this Labor Day, it’s time to ensure that the workplace work for us all.

About the Author: Linda Meric is Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, an inclusive multi-racial membership organization founded in 1973 to strengthen the ability of low-income women to win economic justice through grassroots organizing and policy advocacy.

Under Linda’s leadership, 9to5 has won important victories on minimum wage, good jobs, work-family, anti-discrimination, pay equity, welfare, child care and other issues affecting low-income women. Linda has spent more than 30 years as a labor and community organizer. She also serves as an adjunct professor specializing in sexual harassment and other workplace issues.

Linda is a member of the Governor’s Colorado Pay Equity Commission, serves in the leadership of several state and national policy coalitions, and has received several awards for her work with and on behalf of low-income women, including the “Be Bold” Award presented by the Women’s Foundation of Colorado. She was recently appointed to the National Board of Directors of the American Forum, a progressive media organization.


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Obama’s Not Alone: Inviting Cities to the Labor Day Barbecue

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(Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

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We always knew it would take a fight to enact the kinds of sweeping reforms we need to fix the economy so that it really works for working Americans. The Employee Free Choice Act was never set to sail through Congress without opposition from the nation’s most anti-union employers. No one expects that it will be much easier to repair our broken immigration laws, overhaul flawed trade policy, improve retirement security or ensure that parents can finally afford time off work to welcome a newborn. But the sheer nastiness of the health care reform fight begs the question: if even modest reforms are this difficult for a popular Democratic President with large majorities in both chambers of Congress, how will we ever achieve the economic restructuring the nation needs?

One way to improve the odds that working people will have more to celebrate on Labor Days to come is to ensure that our cities get a special invitation to the national policy conversation. Picture it as a giant nationwide barbecue: gathered around the grill, cities can share local policy victories that have measurably improved the lives of their own residents – and can provide a successful model for other cities and for national action. Raising the profile of proven local policies may make the reforms proposed in Washington feel a lot less lonely.

San Francisco can share its own universal health care model, which currently provides 45,000 uninsured city residents with access to affordable primary and preventive care, prescriptions and lab tests through city clinics and participating private hospitals. The track record of Healthy San Francisco, as the program is known, should be informing the national health care debate to a far greater extent than it is.

While they’re talking health, the City by the Bay can also recount its experience guaranteeing everyone employed in the city the opportunity to earn paid sick days – a policy that is projected to reduce costs and improve public health and has not increased unemployment. Washington DC and Milwaukee have already passed weaker versions of this policy. Now New York City is looking to emulate San Francisco’s success. Examples like these can boost national legislation like the Healthy Families Act which would let working people nationwide stop having to make the untenable choice between their health and a needed paycheck.

Minneapolis could also pipe up. The City of Lakes insists that when they provide subsidies for economic development, companies that get public money need to create living wage jobs. The successful policy is a vivid example to cities across the country which regularly provide lucrative private tax breaks only to lure poverty-level jobs.

Then there’s New York, where grassroots organizations citywide have teamed up with the State Department of Labor to educate employees and employers about workplace laws and identify cases where employers are illegally cheating their workers out of pay. The program, known as New York Wage Watch has attracted national controversy because it enlists unions in the effort to detect illegal activity by employers. The debate provides a perfect opportunity to consider which poses a greater threat to the country: the pervasiveness of employers stealing employee wages or the potential for groups – which have no special power to look at a company’s books or confidential documents – to intrude on private business as they uncover illegal activity? Lawbreakers may be right to fear that this local education and monitoring effort could go national.

Finally, Los Angeles should join the party. Home to the nation’s busiest seaport, Los Angeles realized it would never significantly improve air quality as long as the dirty diesel trucks servicing the port were owned by overstretched independent operators without the resources to buy or maintain cleaner vehicles. The city took bold action to both clean up the trucks and transform the drivers from exploited independent contractors into employees with a chance of improving their own working conditions. Not surprisingly, national business interests don’t like the idea of port truckers unionizing. But other port cities are considering the policy, with the potential to improve the quality of both air and jobs.

Federal policy battles cannot be won in a vacuum. Cities and towns across the country demonstrate the success of policies that improve the lives of working people. This is one Labor Day barbecue we should all attend.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Her studies focused on comparative political economy, political theory, and social movements. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers. She has also been active on the local political scene working with progressive elected officials. Amy resides in Manhattan Valley with her husband.

This blog was originally written for DMI Blog for Labor Day 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.


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You're Invited to Write for “Taking Back Labor Day”

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This September Workplace Fairness and the Today’s Workplace Blog will be hosting our second annual “Taking Back Labor Day” blog carnival.  Since last Labor Day our blog has been relaunched and improved and our website continues to grow.  This year we were nominated for a Webby Award for Best Law Site and have increased our number of website visitors annually to over 400,000.  Today’s Workplace is a source for commentary and discussion on the most important issues in labor and employment facing workers today.

Labor Day should be a time to remind people of why the labor movement is still important and to discuss and take inventory of critical issues affecting workers.  We are inviting you to write an original blog for Labor Day.  A few broad topics we’d like to touch on are as follows:

* Why is the labor movement still important?
* How can it be further revitalized?
* How can unions and employment lawyers work together more closely to advance the rights of workers?
* What things should the Obama administration be focusing on with regard to the labor movement?
* In 5, 10, 15 years, what will be the most important workplace issue to consider on Labor Day?
* Given the state of our economy and all that has happened since late 2008, what part should the labor movement play and how will it change?

Last year we ended up with 35 guest bloggers for “Taking Back Labor Day” and this year we hope to make it even bigger.  If you do not have time to write an original piece we would also be happy to crosspost from your ‘home’ blogs if you would like to send something.  Also we encourage all our contributors and readers to make comments and really turn the blogs into a conversation. Perhaps through this effort more people will remember that Labor Day is not just a good day to go shopping, but a day, as Peter McGuire put it circa 1882, to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

If you have any questions please feel free to contact Paula Brantner at [email protected]. Articles can be sent as word documents to the aforementioned email address or if you are familiar with blog publishing we can set up a user account for you.  If you would like to post a blog that is pertinent to our audience but not specific to Labor Day you are welcome to send it and we will post it later in the month. 

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Shannon Lichtenberg & Paula Brantner
Workplace Fairness

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