The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The stark disparities of paid leave: The rich get to heal. The poor get fired.

Obama announced his legislation proposal to offer paid sick leave to all Americans. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

President Obama’s push for paid leave this week highlights a glaring disparity in the American workforce: Time off is often feasible for the relatively well-off -- but low-wage earners, who need each paycheck to stay financially afloat, just don’t have that option.

About 43 million American workers have no paid sick leave, according to White House figures. High wage earners tend to receive the benefits through employers, according to a recent survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Access depends on occupation, the Post’s Chris Ingraham noted: 88-percent of private sector managers and financial workers enjoy the benefit, more than double the rate among service workers (40-percent) and construction workers (38-percent).

So, they keep working, through pregnancies and family deaths and the flu, afraid of losing their jobs -- or simply eight hours of pay, said Ellen Bravo, executive director of the advocacy group Family Values at Work. Parental leave, she said, is regarded an out-of-reach luxury.

“Those who most need it -- but can least afford it -- are in the most difficult position to take it,” Bravo said. “For them, what should be a joyous occasion of having a baby -- or a process of recovering for a few days -- becomes this period of falling into poverty, debt, bankruptcy…”

Obama's proposal seeks to change that, starting with the public sector: Federal workers can now take an advance of up to six weeks of sick leave to care for a new child or ailing relative, the president announced Thursday. They can also annually earn up to seven paid sick days.

Meanwhile, the White House is urging Congress to mandate paid sick leave in the United States. The administration also proposes using more than $2 billion in new funds to encourage states to develop their own paid family and medical leave programs. The Department of Labor will offer $1 million helps local governments conduct feasibility studies.

Today, only three states provide paid family leave: California, New Jersey and Rhode Island all offer four to six weeks of the benefits, financed through Temporary Disability Insurance programs. A handful are pushing mandatory compensation for sick days.

Gayle Goldin, a Rhode Island state senator who sponsored paid family leave legislation, said the benefit reduces a particularly cruel form of inequality -- and a drag on local economies.

“It levels the playing field for everyone in Rhode Island,” she said. “Low wage earners no longer have to worry about losing their jobs. They don’t have to budget for two or three weeks off, which could derail a family’s finances. They don’t have to skip buying groceries, which hurts them and the grocery store.”

It’s too early to measure impact in Rhode Island, which launched the program last year, offering workers four weeks of paid leave (at between $72 and $752 per week, depending on an employee’s income).

California passed the nation’s first paid leave law in 2002, giving policymakers more than a decade of economic lessons. The state’s workers have since filed nearly 2 million claims, mostly seeking time to care for new children. The law lifted wages of mothers with young children, researchers found, and encouraged them to stay in the workforce.

New Jersey added the benefits in 2009. Most employees who requested paid leave did so following childbirth, according to a Rutgers University Study. New mothers in the Garden State who used the benefit, researchers found, were far more likely to return to a job -- and earn higher wages down the road.

Paid sick days, the smaller bursts of recovery, are also gaining momentum nationwide: Two years ago, Connecticut passed legislation requiring employers with at least 50 workers to offer paid sick leave to hourly employees in the service sector. Last November, Massachusetts decided employers with at least 11 workers must offer the benefit. And starting in July, California will also require every employer to provide one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

Each program chips away at inequality, said Bravo, who collects letters from struggling parents for Family Values At Work. She knows a mom who took "a long weekend" after having a baby in a state without paid leave benefits.

Having a baby is expensive, she said. Getting sick is expensive. Caring for sick relatives is expensive.

“You often can’t avoid these things,” Bravo said. “The fundamental contradiction in this country: Succeeding at being a provider makes you fail at being a caregiver. That is the reality for low wage workers.”

President Obama had a working lunch at a Baltimore coffee shop on Thursday, promoting his proposal to allow millions of Americans to earn up to seven days of paid sick time a year. (Video: Reuters)