Paid Leave is Vital to Families’ Economic Security

Yesterday, President Obama proposed a fundamental right to earned paid sick leave for all workers in this country. He also directed federal agencies to offer paid family leave to their workers. This is welcome news.

The fact is, we are behind all of our economic peers in the world in terms of providing what should be a bare minimum standard: paid leave when workers are sick, have doctor’s appointments, or need to care for family members. We also fall short when it comes to family leave—although California has had great success with their paid family leave initiative. Meanwhile, Bloomberg put out a great graphic comparing maternity leave in the United States with other countries in the world. It’s easy to see how far we have to go.

Employers, workers, and the public would all benefit from paid sick and family leave. My colleagues and I have shown through a series of studies on cities and states that paid sick leave is of negligible cost to employers, and we have presented this evidence at state legislative hearings. Mandatory paid sick time would mean that the many employers that already provide paid sick days would have a level playing field with their competitors, and all employers would be able to more easily maintain healthy workplaces. While any new labor standard generates concerns about the business climate and job creation, the evidence from jurisdictions that require paid sick days has all been positive.

The first jurisdiction to set a paid sick days standard was San Francisco, where employers have been required to offer earned paid leave since 2007. Fears that the law would impede job growth were never realized. In fact, during the last five years, employment in San Francisco grew twice as fast as in neighboring counties that had no sick leave policy. San Francisco’s job growth was faster even in the food service and hospitality sector, which is dominated by small businesses and viewed as vulnerable to additional costs.

Family economic security is at risk when workers do not have access to paid leave. Currently, more than one-third of all workers—39%—have no paid sick days. When these workers get sick, they are forced either to go to work, or to stay home without pay and risk losing their job. Access to sick days is also vastly unequal. As shown in the figure below, workers at the top of the scale are nearly four times more likely to have sick days than workers at the bottom of the wage scale. Only one-in-five low-wage workers have paid sick days, compared with 87% of high-wage workers. These low-income workers are the ones who can least afford to lose pay when they are sick.

Figure A

Percent of private industry workers with access to paid sick days, by wage group, 2014

Share of workers who have access to paid sick days
Lowest 10 percent 20%
Lowest 25 percent 30%
Second 25 percent 64%
Third 25 percent 73%
Highest 25 percent 84%
Highest 10 percent 87%
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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics' National Compensation Survey--Employee Benefits in the United States, March 2014 (Table 6).

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Opening paid sick days for those who currently don’t have them will mean stronger, healthier families. Working parents are often forced to choose between staying home with a sick child and going to work. When parents cannot take off work, children are sometimes sent to school ill, diminishing their learning experience and exposing other students, teachers and staff to infection. When employees go to work sick, they endanger their own health and the health of their colleagues while jeopardizing safety and the quality of their work. At the same time, staying home and putting one’s own health first can result in overdue bills and not having enough food to eat.