There are many areas of life in this country where it appears that we live in two worlds. And that's no different when we consider paid sick days. In the first world, if you're sick, you stay home from work, take care of yourself, and have the time to get better.
In the second world, if you're sick, you go to work anyway. In the second world, you go to work, even when your child is sick. You know that if you stay home, you'll lose pay – or maybe even your job.
As we approach Women's Equality Day on August 26, the day that marks the 90th anniversary of women's right to vote, it's troubling that so many of the workers who live in the second world are women. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, more than 22 million women workers lack paid sick days. And though women still bear the brunt of care-giving duties in most American families, we are also the least likely to have a paid sick day available to care for a sick child. Fifty-three percent of working mothers, as compared to 48 percent of working fathers, lack a paid sick day they can use to care for a child.
The U.S. is one of only four industrialized nations that do not offer a national standard of paid sick days. It just isn't right. I wonder what the suffragettes, who worked so hard and so long to win women's right to vote, would say about the lack of this basic workplace standard.
Let me tell you about Tahirah.
She and her young daughter live in a world without paid sick days. Twenty-something Tahirah had achieved a milestone in life: she finally had her dream job -- crew leader in a Denver airport restaurant with a clear path to the management track. There was just one problem: her daughter suffers with asthma and Tahirah had no paid sick days.
She managed to make it work for a while. Then, one day, her daughter had a brutal asthmatic episode. Her daycare provider called to inform Tahirah that she should meet her at the hospital emergency room. But her supervisor withheld the information -- until the lunch rush was done and he didn't need Tahirah at work anymore.
The incident forced her to quit that job.
Seventy-eight percent of workers employed in hospitality and food service, and 69 percent of workers employed in administration and office work, lack paid sick days. This is a serious concern because, like Tahirah, they are the workers who have the most intimate contact with the public. The lack of paid sick days isn't just an issue for family care-givers, it's an issue of public health, as we saw during last year's H1N1 flu epidemic. We all are at risk when workers lack the opportunity to stay home and get better without the possibility of spreading contagions to the rest of us.
There's something else, too: Economic justice.
In these tough times, with families struggling mightily to hang on, to keep a roof overhead and food on the table, it seems particularly punitive that a worker could lose income or even lose a job simply for getting sick or for having a sick child. What would Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth have to say about how the lack of paid sick days disenfranchises women and their families?
Hundreds of 9to5 members and activists think those courageous women would deeply identify with the paid sick days movement. That's why we've chosen Women's Equality Day for 9to5's National Day of Action -- Healthy Workplaces: Paid Sick Days Now!
On August 26, we will organize events around the country, from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., and call for Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, federal legislation proposed by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, that would guarantee up to seven paid sick days a year.
It's time that the U.S. joined other industrialized countries around the globe and made this one America; one where no worker has to choose between the family she loves and the job she needs.
Meric is executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women. For information on a Women's Equality Day event near you, contact [email protected]