March 13, 2009

Commentary:

For International Women’s Day, we should get paid parental leave and paid sick leave

By Sangita Nayak

March 8 is International Women’s Day, and it’s shameful that women in the United States are lagging behind in some crucial areas, like work policies.

Women here have a much harder time working and caring for their family members at the same time.

Even something so basic as getting paid time off to raise a baby is denied to most women in the United States. We rank last out of 21 industrialized countries in our parental leave policies, according to a recent study by the Center for Economic Policy Research. The United States mandates no paid maternity leave, virtually alone in this group of nations.

Equally as shocking, paid sick leave is not required in the United States, either. Almost half of women working in the private sector have no sick time. In the largest industry that employs women, accommodations and food service, 78 percent go without paid sick time.

We need to get paid parental leave and paid sick leave if we, as a society, are going to be as fair and just, as we view ourselves as being.

We can make some of these gains locally or statewide.

Several states, for instance, have mandated some modest paid time off for new parents. These states are California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico also has such a policy.

For paid sick leave, San Francisco has led the way, putting it on the books back in 2007. The citizens of Milwaukee followed suit this past November, with nearly 70 percent of voters favoring the ordinance, which my organization, 9to5, helped promote. Unfortunately, the local chamber of commerce is suing the city to block enforcement of the ordinance.

While we can make headway city by city and state by state, the issues of paid parental leave and paid sick leave are national ones. And they go to the heart of what kind of country we want to be. Do we want to provide time for new parents to be with their babies? Do we want to let people stay home when they are sick without fear of losing their jobs? Should we, the people who live in our communities, set these policies, or must we leave everything in the hands of private companies?

Ironically, having paid parental leave and paid sick leave policies is good for business. It provides a positive incentive for employees to stay with the company, thus limiting expensive turnover. And, in the case of sick leave, it keeps the germs from coming to the office.

This is actually a public health issue. If a restaurant worker, a hotel worker or health worker must go to work sick because they don’t have paid sick days, they infect the rest of us. That hurts us all.

On this International Women’s Day, it’s time for the United States to catch up with other advanced industrialized countries.

Women need — we all need — paid parental leave and paid sick leave.

Sangita Nayak lives in Milwaukee. She is the lead organizer at 9to5 Milwaukee, and has been engaging in community organizing for the last decade. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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