Susan, a single mother in Missouri, has a 10-year-old son who has pneumonia. She wants to stay home and care for him, but she cannot because her boss refuses to let her take the day off and she is terrified that, if she misses work, she will lose her job. She has no choice but to leave him home alone, breaking away from work as often as possible to call and check on him.
When Andrea's seven-year-old daughter gets pinkeye, the Arizona mother is told to bring the sick child to work with her — at a school, no less. Andrea has to leave her daughter in a small room all day, checking on her regularly and worrying about the infection spreading to school staff and students.
Susan and Andrea are far from alone. They are just two of the nearly 40 million people in this country who cannot earn a single paid sick day. Millions more cannot use them to care for a sick child. For these mothers and fathers, having to choose between job and family is the norm. And it is simply unacceptable.
Fortunately, we have seen recent glimmers of hope that suggest a growing awareness of the plight of workers like Susan and Andrea, and the urgent need for public policies to help.
For the past several years, cities and states have been advancing paid sick days proposals. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have had paid sick days laws in place since 2007 and 2008, respectively. In 2011, Connecticut became the first state to guarantee workers this basic right. And Seattle recently passed a paid sick days law, which took effect in 2012.
These laws paved the way for a flurry of activity that led last month to the approval of a paid sick days law in Portland, Oregon, City Council passage of a similar measure in Philadelphia for the second time (although Mayor Nutter vetoed it again), and an agreement in New York City that will lead to close to one million workers getting the right to earn paid sick days by the time the law is fully implemented in 2015.
These victories result from the tireless efforts of workers, businesses, advocates and lawmakers across the country. But the sad reality is that they won't make life better for Susan or Andrea or for millions of workers like them who do not live in a city or state that gives workers the right to earn paid sick days. Their states, Missouri and Arizona, do not have paid sick days laws and, until recently, federal lawmakers have failed to even consider a national paid sick days standard.
That changed last week when members of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Education and the Workforce discussed H.R. 1406 — anti-worker legislation disguised as an effort to give workers more flexibility. The bill would cause real harm to workers; it would mean a pay cut without any guarantee of the time off workers need. But in the course of discussing this misguided and dangerous proposal, lawmakers acknowledged experiences like those of Susan and Andrea — and that the country needs policy solutions. And they had an unprecedented discussion of the Healthy Families Act, the federal paid sick days proposal.
As small a step as that was, it was a first for this Congress. And it comes on the heels of local victories and significant momentum around and support for paid sick days policies. Lawmakers at the federal level need to seize this moment and pass the Healthy Families Act.
The time is now for federal action on paid sick days. Mothers, fathers, family members and workers across the country deserve it.
This post is by Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.