Yesterday, the White House announced  it would take important steps toward ensuring that workers have the right to earn up to seven paid sick days a year and paid family and medical leave to care for their families. Specifically, the White House plans to call on Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act and on states and cities to pass similar laws; provide new funding to help states design their own paid family and medical leave programs; and increase the paid sick days and family and medical leave benefits available to federal employees.

This initiative will help all workers, but will be especially meaningful to women who still shoulder the lion’s share of caregiving responsibilities. With more families counting on women’s wages than ever before, both women and men need to be able to take time off from work to welcome a new baby, to care for a sick child or elderly parent, or to address their own medical needs without suffering financial hardship as a result. As the President noted, “[N]o matter how sick they are, or how sick a family member is, they may find themselves having to choose to be able to buy groceries or pay the rent, or look after themselves or their children.” 

Today, only 12 percent of private sector employees have paid family and medical leave provided through their employer and only 61 percent have paid sick days. This means that 43 million Americans don’t get any paid sick leave. Low-wage workers, two-thirds of whom are women, are the least likely to have access to these basic benefits and also most likely to have little or no control over their work schedules. Eighty percent of low-wage workers don’t have a single paid day off to recover from illness. And many Americans don’t even have unpaid leave. Less than 60 percent of US workers are eligible for unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and of those who are eligible, many cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

To announce the new initiative, President Obama took a trip to a coffee shop in Maryland, where he spoke with Amanda Rothchild, the coffee shop’s owner, who provides paid sick days to her employees. Amanda explained that providing sick leave leads to more productive employees, lower workforce turnover, and greater productivity — just a few more good reasons why all employees should have paid sick days.

The United States needs to catch up to every other industrialized country and provide workers with the paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, and fair scheduling protections that working families need to succeed. The President’s initiative is a very important step in the right direction. Now it’s time for Congress to lead on leave.

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