Putting Our Hearts and Our Money Where They Count: Paid Sick Days in Context

Elleanor Chin FacebookTwitter

In just about all of the United States, including specifically in Oregon, a pregnant woman working full time to support a family may not be entitled to even a single paid day of leave from work to give birth, much less to go to the doctor for prenatal care, manage any pregnancy complications, or recover from birth and bond with her newborn. The United States has the worst family leave and sick leave policies in the industrialized world. Likewise, working people in the United States must frequently choose between losing pay and coming to work sick. If they are too ill or injured to even make that choice, they will lose income and any children they have will be economically vulnerable to homelessness, hunger and other dangers that people without adequate income face in this country.

Is this the world we want for any of our children?

The Oregon legislature is considering a bill to provide paid sick leave to workers across the State. Currently Eugene and Portland both have paid sick leave ordinances, but those only protect workers whose employers operate in those two cities. The Obama Administration is supporting state paid sick and family leave efforts and the Secretary of Labor has a “Lead on Leave” campaign with resources and policy arguments in favor of paid leave. As part of the Lead on Leave campaign White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and senior Department of Labor officials are touring the country and meeting with legislatures, employers and community representatives to advocate for paid leave.

Latifa Lyles, Director of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, spoke at the City Club of Portland on Friday May 1, as part of the Lead on Leave Tour. Her address was part of the City Club’s State of Motherhood program. The program also included a panel with Lyles, Andrea Paluso, Executive Director of Family Forward Oregon, and Dr. Aileen Duldolao a Maternal and Child Health Epidemiologist with Multnomah County and a primary author of the 2014 Multnomah County Health Department Maternal, Child and Family Health Data Book. A complete recording of the program, moderated by Sunny Petit of the Center for Women's Leadership is available on the City Club’s YouTube channel.

The program put paid leave in the context of the overall health and economic wellbeing of women and children, particularly working women of color and their children. Health outcomes correlate across the human life span. An infant whose mother experiences a healthy pregnancy and has access to health care during and after pregnancy is more likely to receive appropriate health care. Child health indicators translate into lifelong health outcomes (both favorable and unfavorable) and predict life span. Populations where infants and mothers receive adequate health care experience lower infant mortality.

The racial and gender wage gap exacerbates the problem. Women as a whole earn $0.78 for every dollar men earn and for women of color the statistics are far worse, with Latina women making barely half a dollar for every dollar men earn. Women of color comprise a large percentage of single parent households. In Oregon and nationally majority of children living in households headed by women of color are living in poverty. When enormous number of children are living in poverty, even where their parent(s) work full time, something is fundamentally flawed. We are collectively letting down the families who are doing their part by working and paying taxes when we fail to give them a fair shot at raising their children to be healthy, contributing members of society.

Providing for every worker to receive paid time to care for themselves and their family when they are ill is one step on the right direction. Low wage workers are frequently women of color and single parents. Low wage workers (particularly in food service and retail) frequently have few benefits, including paid time off when they or their children are sick. As a result the most vulnerable workers have the least amount of flexibility when trying to care for their children, and children who are most at risk for illness are stuck in a recurring cycle of poverty, poor health care and inadequate resources to improve their chances of living a better life. Sick time is not only an investment in vulnerable members of society (potentially reducing long term social costs), but also makes near-term business sense. Improving employee health reduces transmission of disease in the work place, and increases productivity while decreasing employee turnover.

Paid sick time legislation has passed in several cities and states around the country and is gaining momentum. Oregon has the opportunity to make paid sick time a state wide standard. By leading on paid sick leave we will be taking a step to support not just parents and children, but healthier people in all stages of life.

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