Republicans will object, perhaps quite vociferously. As Democrats roll out an agenda to address inequality and win support from middle-class voters, this is an issue that highlights a fundamental philosophical difference between the parties, one that Democrats are hoping they can turn to their political advantage.
First, some basic facts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 39 percent of private sector workers get no paid sick leave, and the lower you go down the income scale, the less likely you are to get it. If you’re an executive you’ll get paid if you stay home with the flu, but if you’re an hourly fast-food worker you almost certainly won’t. That imposes all kinds of costs on both workers and companies, from spreading disease when people are forced to work when sick, to increasing turnover as people lose their jobs because of illness.
This is yet another area where the United States stands alone among highly developed countries. Every one of our peer countries mandates that employers provide paid sick leave; in some cases the employer just has to pay for it, and in some cases taxes create a fund that pays people when they’re too sick to work. In recent years, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island have passed laws creating some kind of paid sick leave system. We do have a national law, the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was passed in 1993 (over the objections of most Republicans), but that only provides unpaid leave for an illness or family emergency.
So how does this highlight the essentially different approach the two parties take to economic issues? The Republican perspective essentially says that the role of government is to help you get in the door to the workplace: they want to establish tax and spending policies that create jobs, but once you get the job, you’re essentially on your own. Democrats, on the other hand, are much more willing to have government go through the door with the worker and establish rules for what happens inside. And that’s what many (though not all) of the policies they’re now advocating are about: increasing the minimum wage, making more workers eligible for overtime pay, and now paid sick leave.
The chances of a Republican Congress passing the Healthy Families Act are somewhere between zilch and zero. But the administration is probably hoping they can at least start a debate on the topic that will make people think more politically about the workplace.
There’s little question that the American workplace has grown meaner in recent decades. It isn’t just that wages have stagnated. It’s also that people feel more disposable and insecure at work. Many companies force worker to take drug tests and monitor their emails. If you have to have your bags searched every time you leave your place of employment, you aren’t exactly going to feel like your contributions are being valued. And if you don’t like it, your only option is to quit, which for most people is no option at all.
The decline of labor unions in America has also meant the decline of a certain kind of political consciousness about work. One of the things unions try to do is convince workers to see the problems they have on the job in a broader context: it isn’t just that your boss is a jerk, it’s that the system allows him to treat you poorly. The answer isn’t to hope you get a better boss someday, but to band together to equalize the power relationship so you can force the system to change.
While government is never going to be able to set as many terms of employment as a union can, Democrats are trying to duplicate some of that political consciousness about work. They want to convince people that there are some things government can do to make workplaces more humane and ease the burdens on workers, and that voters should vote for the party that wants to do those things.
Republicans are going to counter that mandating sick leave will raise costs for employers and therefore cost jobs. In other words, their argument will remain that what matters is how many people get in the door, and government shouldn’t cross the threshold. The question is whether voters want some more help even after they get inside.