In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama promoted the Healthy Families Act, which could transform life for the millions working moms (and dads) who lose pay they can’t afford to spare if they or their children are sick. The act would allow workers to accrue seven days of paid sick leave per year, according to The Kaiser Foundation.
The Healthy Families Act was just one of several initiatives Obama announced that would help fix the real challenges faced by working Americans, including several who wrote letters to the president to share their stories.
Eight of the guests at Tuesday’s State of the Union address in House chambers earned their seat because of those letters – proof that stories have the power to shape public policy.
Although many of us working parents support paid sick leave in theory, it is up to us to stand up and speak out about our own experiences in order to create the change we want to see. Paid sick leave is a critical part of balancing work and family life
As working families are challenged to make ends meet, they should support paid sick leave and here are four reasons why:
1. Paid sick leave is common sense:
For working moms like Fran Ruff of West Columbia, South Carolina, trying to maintain a budget without paid sick leave is more than challenging-it is impossible.
Ruff, a single mom of four says it’s common sense to keep a sick child home from school, if only to keep him from spreading germs to classmates and teachers.
What makes no sense is the immediate financial penalty of lost wages for families with no slack in their budgets.
Two years ago, at her job as office manager for an optometrist’s office, Fran did not have paid sick leave. So when she came down with the flu, she went in to work-in part because she could not afford to stay at home. “I was seriously ill,” said Ruff, “I should have stayed home.” To make it worse, her job wasn’t in the back, where she could suffer out of patients’ sight. “I have to be right there at the front desk and try to be cheery.” So she sat at the front reception desk, smiling despite an upset stomach that kept her running back and forth to the bathroom. The irony of working for a medical professional who had paid time off wasn’t lost on Ruff. “When he (the doctor) gets sick, he just calls out and doesn’t bother to come in,” Ruff said.
2. Paid leave places the focus on family rather than finances
The more you earn, the more likely you are to have paid time off – 87 percent of workers in the top 10 percent of wages have paid time off, compared to 20 percent of workers in the bottom 10 percent of wages. Forty percent of service jobs – which tend to be dominated by women – don’t have paid time off. And since service jobs are also often the lowest-paid jobs, these are the workers who can least afford to stay home with a stomach bug.
When Fran Ruff’s youngest child threw up at school and had to be picked up, she knew not to ask her boss if she could leave. “The first conversation would be, ‘Is there anyone else who can do this?’” said Ruff, sounding exasperated.
“If there were anyone else, I wouldn’t have asked him. If there were any other way I could do it, I would do it.” She would try to turn to relatives, hoping they could rearrange their schedules to care for her son as she knew that even a few days of missed pay would upset her family’s finances.
“I feel bad as a mother because I have to rumble my child around here and there when I should just be able to stay home with my child when he’s sick.” Paid sick leave would allow parents to make decisions for their families that were not tied to their bottom line. When you are barely making ends meets, even $200 is essential to taking care of the bills that keep our household running – lights, rent and gas for your car – a fact that many working moms know too well.
3. Paid sick leave is what we asked for.
Eighty-one percent of women, 92 percent of African Americans and 86 percent of Hispanics say workers should have paid sick leave, according to a 2010 survey of likely voters conducted for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
4. Paid sick leave is good for businesses’ bottom line.
When Connecticut mandated paid sick leave in 2012, employers said employee productivity and morale was up, according to a survey. In Seattle, research found that employer growth and wages rose after the city passed a paid sick time ordinance in 2012.
Today, Ruff has paid leave at her job as a contact lens technician. Though she is still working miracles to make her modest income stretch to the end of the month, knowing that she has the flexibility to care for herself and her children if they are sick without financial penalty is a huge relief. In fact, she chose her new job, in part, because of the benefit.
Conservatives have already begun to push back against the president’s proposal, arguing that paid sick leave would hurt businesses’ bottom line. Now is the time for workers to remind politicians that people matter more than profits.
Because stories have power, we want to hear from working families like yours. If you wrote a letter to President Obama, your congressional representative or state legislator, what would you want them to know about how you make ends meet?
Add your voice to the chorus of workers and families on the “Our Stories, Our Power” website. Go to ourstoriesourpower.org, click on “Share” and tell us what your families goes through to make ends meet. You can upload a story or video you’ve already recorded, or record a story using the camera on your phone or computer.