Why America Needs a National Program of Paid Sick and Family Leave

Yves here. I haven’t seen much in the way of details as to how the proposed 12 week paid family leave program would work. Obviously this is subject to negotiation, but below are some main points from the initial draft, per Health Affairs:

Biden’s American Families Plan proposes to phase in, over 10 years, 12 weeks of paid leave for: parents, including same-gender couples, caring for a newborn, adopted or foster child; workers addressing their own or a loved one’s serious illness; workers dealing with the effects of a family member’s military deployment or service-related injury; survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault; and workers grieving the loss of a loved one.

The program would provide most workers—including the self-employed, part-time, and contract workers—a minimum of two-thirds of weekly wages or salary, up to $4,000 a month. Lower-wage workers would get up to 80 percent of pay. The benefit would be government funded and coordinated with existing state and employer-provided paid leave. (Twenty percent of private-sector workers currently have access to paid leave. The federal program would be a baseline that employers and states could choose to add to.)

The White House estimates the program would cost $225 billion over 10 years….Biden proposes funding his paid leave program with general tax revenues—specifically through tax increases on upper-income families and corporations.

Even if the government pays for the benefit, having employees leave, even for important and completely legitimate reasons, is disruptive, particularly is the employee has high developed skills or knowledge. So I can see employers trying to find ways to structure work relations so as to fall outside this requirement. For instance, how are staffers who serve less than half time treated?

The White House website description of the plan is coy about the status of part-time employees. The only mention is in the problem description, not the solution:

Low-wage and part-time workers, a majority of whom are women, are less likely to have access to paid sick days.

Note employee/employer me would not have benefitted had this law been in place when I got my hip replacement. Like many of the self-employed, I take payroll only once a year, and that wasn’t in the quarter when I had my operation.

Long-winded way of saying any the US is way behind global standards and needs to do better, but here as everywhere, how beneficial this family leave benefit proves to be will very much depend on details.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

Keli Vereb wasn’t sure how long it would take to recover from complicated neck surgery last year, but she took comfort knowing she’d be able to focus on healing without having to worry about her job.

That’s because United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2227-01 negotiated a contract with Vereb’s employer, U.S. Steel, ensuring paid leave for workers who need time to fight for their health.

Millions of other workers need the same security. But they’re out of luck because America remains the only major industrialized country without a universal paid leave program that protects workers’ livelihoods while they confront serious health and family issues.

President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan fills this gaping hole in the nation’s social infrastructure. It would provide workers with 12 weeks of paid leave so they can navigate some of life’s biggest challenges without fear of unsympathetic bosses docking their wages or even firing them for taking time off.

Congress has begun working on legislation addressing key aspects of Biden’s proposal amid overwhelming public support for this commonsense policy.

“I didn’t worry about how I was going to pay the bills while I was off,” Vereb, a caster scheduler based at U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works near Pittsburgh, said of the three months she relied on her union-negotiated leave last year. “My benefits continued. My pension kept accruing.”

Vereb faced an arduous recovery after the operation, one of three she’s had over the years because of injuries sustained in a fender-bender three decades ago.

“It was a whole lot of healing,” recalled Vereb, a union griever, citing the pain and the line of 25 stitches starting at the back of her head. “The first six weeks, I had my neck in a neck immobilizer. I couldn’t even… [take] a shower on my own.”

She’s grateful that the USW fights to retain the leave program during every round of negotiations with U.S. Steel and realizes that many workers across the country are entirely subject to the whims of their bosses.

In the absence of a national paid sick and family leave program, many shortsighted and callous employers force Americans to choose between their health and their paychecks.

About 25 percent of private sector workers lack even one paid sick day a year, let alone a paid leave program. So many put off health screenings or other preventive care, at the risk of compounding their health problems, so they can keep working to cover the bills.

Other Americans power through their jobs despite kidney stones or cancer treatments or report to work with the flu, sore throats or runny noses, even though they can spread diseases to others and put entire workplaces in jeopardy.

The American Families Plan would spare workers those kinds of agonizing decisions, providing them time off not only for themselves but also to care for seriously ill family members, welcome new children, adjust to loved ones’ military deployments, grieve relatives’ deaths or seek safety following sexual assaults, stalking or domestic violence.

“It should be a benefit everyone has,” observed Cheryl Husk, recording secretary for USW Local 9423, which represents workers at Century Aluminum in Hawesville, Kentucky.

Husk’s son recently needed time off to provide around-the-clock care for his wife and newborn, but he could only get an unpaid leave from his nonunion mechanic’s job. Husk and other family members chipped in to help cover his bills during his time as a caregiver.

Providing paid leave for family emergencies is not only humane but also a way to protect others in the workplace.

“I don’t want to be working beside somebody who’s distracted by medical issues at home,” Husk explained. “That doesn’t create a good work atmosphere for anybody. It can even be quite dangerous.”

Employers refuse to meet workers’ needs even though paid sick leave helps them as well. It reduces the risk of workplace accidents, and it boosts stability, productivity and worker loyalty.

Also, as other countries have discovered in the case of maternity leave, paid time off contributes to a nation’s competitiveness.

In America, the lack of universal maternity leave forces many moms back to work within just two weeks of giving birth.

“I could never see that,” said Alycia Allen, a painter at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, where members of USW Local 8888 build nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers for the Navy. “Your body’s not even ready yet.”

When her four-year-old daughter, Skylah, was born, Allen leveraged a pair of USW-negotiated benefits to spend about two months with her infant. Without her union contract, said Allen, a trustee and safety chairperson for Local 8888, she’d have been one of those moms prematurely driven back to work.

Rather than go back too soon, however, some mothers reluctantly quit their jobs, sacrificing careers and income for parenthood. As many as 30 percent of women without paid leave exit the workforce within a year of having a baby. And some remain out for a decade or longer.

That’s one reason America trails many other nations in the percentage of women in the workforce. Paid leave helps to keep women on the job, and that drives overall economic performance.

Vereb already knows she’ll need a fourth surgery to address the continuing deterioration in her neck.

While she knows her union will ensure she has the time off she needs to recover, she can’t help thinking about her brother, who works for a transportation company, and her sister, a grocery store worker, who have no paid leave at all.

If they needed time off for surgery, Vereb said, “they would just lose their jobs.”

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  1. PhilJ

    Let’s compare this to Germany’s parental leave policy:
    – both parents can take up to 1-3 years off each and their employment is protected
    – the state pays up to $2k USD per month

    Sick people needing time off are similarly well cared for.
    Companies manage to deal with it and the country is doing relatively well.

    America is the richest country in the world.

  2. WillyBgood

    It baffles me that there are only five states that offer disability benefits, only three of which offer some form of family leave. I wonder if all the Californians supposedly moving to Texas realize they no longer have this “luxury”.

  3. Glossolalia

    This will never happen here. The Republicans have been very effective in convincing the populace that anyone trying to take time off work for health or family reasons is probably just lazy and looking for a way to sit home watching TV and smoking weed.

    1. SpartaTodd

      It’s easy to blame Republicans but Red and Blue work together against everyone else. They are two sides of the same coin. If you get sucked into the color war, you lose. Know your enemy. The Democrats betray you all the time with stealth and cowardice. The political class care about no one but themselves and their corporate masters.

  4. LowellHighlander

    Notice that out of the Imperial Capital comes no talk about a peace dividend.

    How many more trillions will be sent down the bottomless sink hole at the Department of War while ordinary, non-corporate persons fight for their livelihoods while they also fight for their health?

    1. SpartaTodd


      Family leave is important but it really deserves to be part of a plan for a real healthcare system/single payer that also has the ability to negotiate pharma costs. If they are not willing to take this on and fix it, nothing else really matters anymore.

      1. Felix_47

        In Germany there is a huge difference. I live in Bavaria. First of all note that the support is 2000 per month not the specified 4000. Second of all who is going to determine who gets to take off on medical grounds? In Germany if there is an issue the case goes to a Gutachter who is bound to give an objective opinion or he or she loses their license. The judge would follow the Gutachter’s recommenation. They don’t have dueling experts in court. In addition the German system has ways to get workers back to work. For example, my cousin had a sore back a few years back. Sore backs don’t get better long term. Symptoms wax and wane and it is largely genetic. The doctor took him off work. The disability insurance then ordered my cousin to go to an inpatient rehab hospital for six weeks far from his home and family. There he had to do supervised physical fitness training, swimming, stretching and diet. If he did not show for any of it the disability insurance would be able to stop payment. After about four weeks he was going stir crazy and begged me to help him escape for a weekend. I helped him but he had to be back before bed check at 9 PM. He could not leave on his own because he was not allowed to have a car and the hospital was in the Black Forest in the middle of nowhere. It was pleasant enough there but it was isolated. His family could not visit regularly. He got some better but not perfect and they let him out at six weeks and he happily returned to work which was required. It seemed an expensive way to deal with a common problem but when I realized the lack of litigation that it entailed, the lack of questionable surgery like the reported case here with repetitive neck surgeries, the lack of permanent disability compensation, and the return to work I realized that the entire backache package is a lot more sensible and cheaper than what we do in the US. For childbirth this Biden program makes sense. For claimed disability in general this program is mostly just a guaranteed annual income for personal injury lawyers, chiropractors and neurosurgeons which is exactly what I would expect from a democratic administration. Fortunately, the US has minimal industry so having endless worker’s comp and surgery won’t affect manufacturers costs and any that are left will leave or contract manufacture out of the US. Given our legal system much of this leave plan will be disastrous. And the example patient with the repetitive neck surgeries after a fender bender is an example. And don’t forget settlements are usually four times the medical which is why attorneys push surgery. Converting a 30,000 neck strain to a half million with neck or back surgery with rods and screws to show on X-Ray is a major industry in the US. In Germany personal injury is loser pays so the client has to come up with the legal fees. As a result clients in Germany sue only when they think they have a good case. Without tort reform and legal reform and medical reform, I am afraid this US government program, like the homeless programs, the child care program, the defense and intelligence programs and on and on will be hijacked by the legal PMC class as one more rent seeking opportunity. How about just mandating all employers must provide paid sick leave for a certain number of days or months. That would make sense but writing government checks for pain and illness will mandate screens, evaluations and litigation. Again, exactly the kind of idea lawyers would come up with.

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