As we near the end of LGBT Health Awareness Week - a time to focus on eliminating the health disparities and health care discrimination faced by the LGBT community - we cannot forget the role that access to health care plays in promoting the health and well-being of LGBT workers and their families. Access to health care goes beyond health insurance and health care services. It also includes workers' ability to take paid sick time to recover from a common illness, care for a sick loved one or seek preventive care.
In Congress and across the country, advocates and legislators are pressing for paid sick days policies that would guarantee working people the right to take time away from work when they, their spouse or partner, and their children are sick. For LGBT families, legislation that provides paid sick time to care for themselves and their loved ones is critical.
Here are some basic facts: Forty-four million workers in the United States can't take a single paid sick day when they are ill. Millions more lack paid sick time to care for an ill child or family member. Workers without paid sick days face an impossible choice when illness strikes - ignore their health needs and the health of their family, or lose a much-needed paycheck and risk losing their jobs.
For LGBT workers and their families, the choice can be even more daunting. LGBT families live throughout the United States, and more than one million same-sex couples across the country are raising children. However, LGBT people are regularly discriminated against in employment, relationship recognition and insurance coverage, and the vast majority of LGBT workers have few protections against workplace discrimination. In most states, workers can be fired just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This vulnerability makes it all the more challenging to take a sick day that could generate negative attention or result in job loss. For transgender workers, many of whom may have specific medical needs that require time off from work, the pressure can be even worse.
For LGBT parents who may not have legal rights with respect to their partners' children and whose employers may not recognize these relationships, it can be even harder to have access to the benefits and flexibility needed to keep their commitment to protecting the health of their families.
As a result, rather than take a risk by seeking time away from work for their health or the health of a child, LGBT workers may feel compelled to send a sick child to school or day care, delay care, or skip necessary recovery and treatment altogether. The negative health consequences of going that route are obvious.
Nationally, workers without paid sick days are 1.5 times more likely than those that have them to go to work sick with the flu and other contagious diseases, spreading germs to co-workers and customers. Those without paid sick days are also more likely to live in households where family members delay or forgo preventive care.
A paid sick days standard that applies to all workers, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status, would guarantee workers time to recover from illness and care for a sick loved one, improving their overall health and the health of their communities. Working parents could get their children the care they need and be able to take time away from work if a health emergency strikes.
Fortunately, there is federal legislation that would establish a paid sick days standard and promote worker health. The Healthy Families Act has been introduced in the last two Congresses and is expected to be reintroduced soon. The legislation would give workers the ability to earn a few job-protected paid sick days each year to use to recover from their own illness or seek medical care - or to help a child or partner who is sick or needs to see a doctor. Under the bill and most proposed state laws, workers could use their paid sick days to care for immediate family members, including same-sex spouses, domestic partners and children.
Three cities - San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee - have already taken the lead and enacted paid sick days laws that apply explicitly to LGBT families. And in nearly 20 states, a national movement for paid sick days is gaining ground. Learn more and join the movement at www.PaidSickDays.org.
Paid sick days are an important step in protecting LGBT workers, the health of their families and their right to equal treatment on the job. That's why this week we highlight the importance of paid sick days for LGBT health - and continue to make it a part of our advocacy work. All families need paid sick days, and getting sick should not have to jeopardize our economic security, our family's health or the health of our communities.