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FMLA Anniversary: Dare to Imagine the World We Deserve

3:11 pm in Uncategorized by EllenBravo

Twenty-one. This number has come to symbolize adulthood. It means good luck in cards. But when it comes to the Family and Medical Leave Act, twenty-one stands for “too damn long” – too little progress over too many years.

Expectant Parents - The father-to-be embraces the mother's pregnant belly

21 years after it’s birth, can we extend FMLA to protect more families?

On August 5, 1993, Congress implemented the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), six months after President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law. For the first time, the United States established the principle that having a baby shouldn’t cost you your job or your health insurance. The law recognized that fathers as well as mothers need time to bond with newborns and that new babies aren’t the only ones who need care. Children, spouses and parents also experience occasional injuries or serious illness and need a hand. And each of us may need time to care for ourselves.

The FMLA includes up to 12 weeks unpaid leave for those purposes. If you’re eligible, your employer has to keep your job open and continue to pay any contributions they make toward health insurance.

It was a good start. Ask Vivien Mikhail in Maine (.pdf link), who used FMLA when her 16-month-old daughter suddenly lost her hearing, or Jennifer Pelton in Maryland (.pdf link), who was able to care for her medically fragile twins, how much it means to know your job and health care will still be there after dealing with family crisis. In fact, FMLA has been used more than 100 million times, with great success. More than half the time people used it for a personal illness. Men as well as women were also able to take time to welcome a new baby, tend to a seriously ill child, and care for an ailing parent or spouse.

But the law excludes a huge chunk of the workforce (.pdf link) – 40 percent – thanks to restrictions specifying that it applies only to companies of 50 or more, and covers only those who’ve been at that employer for at least a year and work at least 25 hours a week on average. Employers can always be more generous than the law and many are, but not enough.

FMLA doesn’t cover routine illness. Fortunately most kids don’t get leukemia, but they do all get stomach flus and nasty coughs; parents who follow doctor’s orders to keep them home can find themselves without a paycheck or sometimes their job. The law has a narrow definition of family, excluding siblings, grandparents and grandchildren. Same-sex couples who are legally married are covered if they live in a marriage equality state (and soon, anywhere in the U.S). And did I mention that the leave is unpaid?

So Melissa Bravo in North Carolina (.pdf link) had a baby and would have been covered – except she hadn’t been on the job for a year and was let go. Tyler Corvin (.pdf link) had to go back to work a week after his wife delivered by caesarean section. He really wanted to help care for her and the baby, but the couple couldn’t afford the financial hit.

Family values can’t end at the workplace door. We need workplace policies for the 21st century. That means fixing the FMLA to cover everyone and every family.

It means making wage replacement possible through the use of a social insurance fund, as three states – California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – have already done. More states want to do so. The $5 million State Paid Leave Fund proposed in the President’s budget would help, as will a smaller pot already made available by the Department of Labor.

But ultimately we need a national fund to cover everyone, such as the one that would be established under the FAMILY Act, (H.R.3712/S.1810), introduced by Senator Gillibrand in the Senate and Rep. Rosa DeLauro in the House. By pooling small contributions from employees and employers, this fund would enable those needing leave to have some vital income during an already challenging time.

We also need paid sick days – as nine cities and one state have already won – for those stomach flus and nasty coughs. More wins are on the horizon.

Let’s be honest. The laws we’re talking about in this country are minimum standards that are truly minimal. Think of Iceland, which has 9 months of paid leave – 3 for mothers, 3 for fathers, and 3 to share, paid for by a combination of national and employer funds; the country is moving to 12 months by 2016. If Iceland is too far away, think of Canada, where mothers of newborns can take 50 weeks at 55 percent pay.

What we’re fighting for is too damn little, but it’s a start. Join us – it’s been too damn long.

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Flu Prevention? Try Paid Sick Days

5:57 am in Uncategorized by EllenBravo

Ask Adela Valdez how it feels to hear public health experts on TV explain ways to limit a flu outbreak. Get a flu shot, wash your hands, they advise – and if you get the flu, stay home until 24 hours after your fever’s gone.

“One day, I had a fever but I went to work anyway,” Adela said. She’d worked for three years in a factory in New York making expensive lamps. “On the third day, I still had a fever. I felt very sick and I asked permission to go to the hospital.”

Her supervisor’s response? “Fine, go to the hospital, but don’t come back. I need people who come here to work, not to get sick.”

Adela lost her job.

Some management consultants acknowledge that sick workers may spread the flu to co-workers out of fear that they’ll be fired if they stay home to recover.

“The economy is still on shaky ground and many workers continue to be worried about losing their jobs,” said John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., an outplacement consulting firm. “In this environment, workers are reluctant to call in sick or even use vacation days.  Of course, this has significant negative consequences for the workplace, where the sick worker is not only performing at a reduced capacity but also likely to infect others.”

The fear is real. University of Chicago researchers found nearly one in four workers reported that they or a family member had been fired, suspended, punished or threatened with being fired for taking time off due to personal illness or to care for a sick child or other relative.

And job loss isn’t the only fear. In this economy, who can afford to lose even one day’s pay?

Ask the people who serve our food, clean our offices, and care for our elderly. They’re among those — half the workforce and three fourths of low-wage workers — who lack paid sick days.

As a Miami cook put it, “Every penny goes somewhere. I have no choice but to suck it up if I’m sick.”

More than one-third of flu cases are transmitted in schools and workplaces. Those same Chicago researchers asked respondents, “Have you ever had to go to work when you were sick with a contagious illness like the flu?” Nearly 70 percent of those lacking paid sick days answered, “Yes.”

Studies show that when sick workers stay home, the number of people affected by pandemic flu can be reduced by 15 to 34 percent, according to Jonathan Heller, director of Human Impact Partners.

“Having an effective leave policy is critical in preventing an office-wide outbreak of the flu,” says John Challenger. “You want to encourage workers to stay home when they are sick so they do not spread illness to co-workers.  You also want them to stay home to care for sick children so they are not forced to go to school and spread the virus to other kids.”

Talk to public school teachers and nurses.  They’ll tell you how many children come to school sick, or can’t get picked up if they fall ill during class because their parents have no paid sick time. They’ll describe the heartbreak of having a child say, “Please don’t call my mom. She’ll get in trouble if you do.” They’ll give you examples of kids – sometimes as young as 8 years old – who miss school to care for a younger sibling.

The majority of states reporting flu cases now say the outbreak is at “severe” levels. To avoid the spread of germs, we have to ensure that no one will lose income or a job for staying home sick.

If you live in one of the cities or states pushing for an earned sick days policy now, raise your voice to elected officials.

Do it for your kids. Make sure your child doesn’t have to sit next to a classmate with the flu whose mom or dad couldn’t risk staying home.

Do it for yourself. Even if you have paid sick days, you don’t want to be served flu with your fries.

In an economy where more and more families are living paycheck to paycheck, we need paid sick days to make sure that a public health crisis doesn’t become a financial crisis.

Connecticut Workers Welcome Paid Sick Days

6:27 am in Uncategorized by EllenBravo

This time last year, Desiree Rosado, a school bus driver in Groton, Connecticut, was dreading flu season. “Working without paid sick days, you’re always worried about what will happen if you get sick,” she said. “When my kids caught the swine flu, I missed a week of pay to stay home and take care of them, and I’m still paying off the credit card bills I racked up.”

But as of January 1, Desiree and hundreds of thousands of other Connecticut workers will begin to earn paid sick time under a new statewide paid sick days law – the first in the nation. She’ll be able to use that time if her kids are sick, if she herself falls ill, or to see a doctor for preventive care. In the process, Desiree says she’s gained “real peace of mind.”

For Desiree and workers across Connecticut, paid sick days are one immediate way to see real economic relief, even in the aftermath of a severe recession.

As someone who drives children safely back and forth to school every day, Desiree Rosado knows another benefit of paid sick days. The new Connecticut law, which applies to workers in the service sector, means those who serve our food and care for the young and the frail will not have to put the public at risk when they’re ill.

“No one should have to choose between their family’s health and their job, and no one should get fired just for getting sick,” said Jon Green, Executive Director of Connecticut Working Families, a member group of Family Values @ Work Consortium and lead organization in the broad coalition which helped win this new law. “Beginning this year, hundreds of thousands of service workers will be able to earn paid sick days that so many of us simply take for granted. This is an important but modest step towards a smarter, healthier Connecticut.”

Research confirms that the lack of paid sick days exacerbates the impact of a health crisis. According to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy research, during the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak of 2009, 8 million Americans came to work while infected with the virus, infecting another 7 million people in the process. Environmental health specialists have documented how loss of pay can influence workers to show up on the job even when they have vomiting or diarrhea.

Green also emphasized the benefits of the law as a common sense victory for working people. “Now more than ever,” Green said, “we should seize every opportunity to strengthen conditions for people working so hard to support their families.”

Connecticut’s win was the first of three in a row last year for paid sick leave proposals. Philadelphia City Council passed a measure a month after Connecticut. Although the mayor vetoed that law, the Council later voted 15-1 for a version that applies to businesses who receive contracts or subsidies from the City. Philly’s coalition plans to re-introduce the broader bill soon. And Seattle City Council overwhelmingly approved a bill adding that city to a growing list of places which recognize the value of ensuring workers can afford to stay home when they’re sick.

2012 will see a wave of similar campaigns across the country – because workers are desperate for relief and because small business owners and policymakers are increasingly seeing paid sick days as a modest step with significant impact that keeps people employed, at a time when holding on to a decent job is especially critical.

According to a poll by Quinnipiac University, 72% of Connecticut resident support the paid sick days law. Hart Research Associates found a similar majority believe that tough economic times is exactly the right time to introduce such protections. They agreed with the statement that “workers are vulnerable now and cannot afford to lose income or risk being fired simply because they have the flu or a child needs medical care.”