Working Sick in America

Some of our country’s workplace policies aren't so different than many Third World countries, according to a Mother Jones article last June. I hardly believed it, but when I read further, I learned that the United States is the “only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave, putting it on par with such nations as Liberia and Swaziland.”

The more we looked into the issues related to medical leave, we learned that there are 57 million workers who don’t have a single paid sick day. The working poor have it the hardest – nearly 80 percent of them don’t get sick days. People like Renee Parish, who we interviewed for the special report, relies on her income to care for her four kids and three grandchildren.  She goes to work when she's sick, because otherwise she can't pay her bills.  Many Americans live like this, and according to Ellen Bravo of the Multi-State Working Families Consortium, there are ways to run a business, and give employees benefits, that make good financial sense for the employer, too.

But on the flip side of the problem, we learned that companies have had problems managing their workers, especially when their workers take advantage of federal protection. James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation pointed out that employers can’t legally terminate workers who claim FMLA leave – regardless of whether they're taking the leave legitimately or not. His examples illustrate how complicated the problems can be.  

Effective January 16th, the Bush Administration changed the FMLA law to make it easier for employers to manage their workers.  If the Obama administration decides to roll back any of those changes, it might be worth taking a broader look at the law to think about how it can be improved both for workers and employers. There are any number of organizations which can provide information about the problems and possible solutions.

Some more food for thought: In France, women regularly take 16 weeks paid maternity leave, and up to 26 weeks if it's a third child.  Fathers get eleven days of paid paternity leave. In Germany, women have 14 weeks with full pay. Norway offers 42 weeks at full pay. Sweden offers 96 weeks – though 78 of those are paid at 80% of the employee's salary.

Now – back to work!