Our Nation's Pay Policies Are Due for a Checkup

This month the White House and the Department of Labor are launching a cross-country tour to promote paid sick leave and family leave policies for American workers. Unions like ours have been fighting for universal paid leave for decades. But we live in a political climate where the voices of a powerful few can easily drown out the common sense of working people. As a result, the United States is one of the only developed nations in the world where workers don't have the legal right to take a sick day.

The status quo is at odds with overwhelming popular opinion. Eighty-eight percent of Americans think that workers should be guaranteed leave time. And this is an issue that cuts across party lines. Recently senators from both sides of the aisle proposed measures that allow workers to earn up to a week of paid sick days every year. With our dysfunctional Congress, it is far from a sure thing, but it's a sign of the momentum growing behind this issue.

The proposal can't come a moment too soon. A study released last month by the Minnesota Department of Health found that between 2004 and 2013, more than 3,000 Minnesotans were infected with foodborne illnesses that could be traced to food service workers who went to work when they were sick.

There are more than 49 million workers in the United States who do not have paid sick leave. People who work in service occupations, including health care support staff, food preparation workers, and personal care attendants, are the least likely to have access to paid sick days. These are also some of the lowest-paid jobs.

That means that millions of Americans are making the tough choice between going to work sick -- and possibly spreading disease to hospital patients, senior citizens or restaurant patrons -- and missing out on a much-needed paycheck or even losing their jobs. It's heartless and irresponsible of our policy makers to put anyone in that position.

Additionally, we need to make sure that workers can take time to care for their loved ones. Only 39 percent of American workers can take paid leave following the birth of a child. Far fewer can take paid time off to care for an ailing parent or relative. Once again, low-wage workers are the least likely to have this benefit. Paid family leave is correlated with healthier infants and more career opportunities for women. It is well past time to remove this major obstacle holding women back in the workplace -- roughly a quarter of all women either quit or are let go from their jobs after a new child arrives.

It's one of the many pay disparity challenges we're grappling with today as we mark Equal Pay Day, so named because a woman has to work until April 14 just to earn the same amount a man earned by the preceding December 31. Equal pay, parenting leave, paid sick leave -- these aren't just women's issues. They're family issues. Our current scenario hurts all working families, and it is unacceptable that women still face these barriers in today's America.

Where paid sick leave is concerned, some cities and states have already started to make the change. While some naysayers have argued that paid leave policies will hurt the economy, economic data from the places that already have these laws show that it just isn't true. In fact, employers report that workers are healthier and more productive.

It's about time we recognized that if you work for a living, you should be able to support your health and your family. American families simply aren't being supported today, but there's a simple solution to all of this: Congress must pass paid sick leave and paid family leave policies. We're sick of waiting.