The United States lags behind the rest of the world in giving workers paid leave to stay home sick or to take care of ill family members, and almost half of all private-sector employees have no paid sick days, according to two new studies.
A report on state laws, conducted by the nonprofit National Partnership for Women & Families, was released in conjunction with legislation two Democrats proposed yesterday to provide all full-time employees with seven days of paid sick leave per year. The other study, which covers global leave laws and was funded by the Ford Foundation, will be released today.
The push for requiring paid leave comes at a time some major business groups are asking the Bush administration to head in the opposite direction by making it harder for workers to take the up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave allowed under federal law.
"This [proposed bill] is in contrast to pious concern for the future of manufacturing when the answer is to drape more chains across the backs of employers," said Neil Trautwein, assistant vice president for human resource policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.
The United States offers new mothers no guaranteed paid maternity leave, according to a Harvard study that will be released today, putting the nation on par with Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. Australia is the only other industrialized nation that offers no paid leave for new mothers, but it does offer 12 months of unpaid leave, the study reported. The study also found that 139 countries offer paid sick leave.
"Frankly, we were stunned by the level of results," said Jody Heymann, associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and founding director of the Project on Global Working Families. "We're very familiar with the fact the U.S. trails when it comes to paid maternity leave. We had no idea the extent to which . . . the rest of world would go forward when the U.S. isn't."
According to the National Partnership's study of state laws covering private- and public-sector workers, no single state requires adequate leave policies. California ranked far ahead of any other state, with Mississippi and Louisiana ranked the worst. Locally, Maryland, Virginia and the District have no laws requiring companies to offer paid sick leave for private employees.
"The idea that no state does everything it really could to ensure that workers have paid sick leave is pretty disappointing," said Debra L. Ness, president-elect of the partnership. She appeared at a news conference with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), sponsors of the bill calling for seven days of paid sick leave.
That bill would cause a problem for the business community, Randel Johnson, vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said yesterday. "We would oppose the bill because it sets a precedent for paid leave which will be expensive," he said, adding that the bill would also create confusion and could spur a new onslaught of lawsuits.
The chamber is lobbying for changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act, which would essentially make it more difficult for employees to take leave. For instance, as it stands, employees can potentially use the leave for minor ailments. The chamber proposed that the law explicitly exclude "minor ailments" from the definition of serious health conditions. Changing the definition would reduce employer costs, the chamber wrote in comments to the Office of Management and Budget.
Although the bill being introduced today seeks seven days of sick leave, Johnson said, that might change in the future. "They always go one way, and that is up."