Some policy questions are difficult. Here are a few easy ones: Should people who handle food for a living have to work while contagious? Should sick kids be stuck at school because their parents are stuck at work? Should coming down with something cost you your job?
Most Americans say: No, no and no. Politicians are catching up with them, but not fast enough.
As I noted last winter, 2011 was the biggest year yet for paid sick leave, a common sense reform requiring employers to provide a minimum number of sick days, so low-wage workers can stay home sick without losing their pay or their jobs. After years of savvy, tenacious organizing, last year Seattle joined San Francisco and DC to become the nation’s third paid sick leave city, and Connecticut’s became the nation’s first statewide law (Milwaukee passed a bill in 2009 but Scott Walker has overridden it).
Paid sick leave is the kind of pro-family policy that we should be able to take for granted in a civilized democracy. By averting senseless firings, it reduces unemployment. By letting sick people stay home, it advances public health. In San Francisco, which in 2006 became the first city to mandate paid leave, even critics have changed their tune. In 2010, the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which had decried the bill as a job killer, told Bloomberg Businessweek that it had turned out to be “the best public policy for the least cost. Do you want your server coughing over your food?”
And yet as advocates in other cities push for their own paid sick laws, the cry wolf anti-regulation crowd is going to bat to defend the status quo. What they lack in evidence, they try to make up for with corporate cash. This year’s marquee showdown is in New York City, where a veto-proof majority of the City Council backs paid sick leave. Democratic Council Speaker Christine Quinn prevented a previous bill from coming to a vote in 2010, and the big business lobby is counting on her to do it again.
Quinn is favored to become the first woman mayor of the nation’s largest city in next year’s election. This month, she’s hearing from women who expect her to do the right thing first. Last week, the New York Times reported on a letter to Quinn headlined by Gloria Steinem, the feminist giant. “I’ve seen women lose their jobs, lose their apartments, and spend two years getting their kids back from foster care—all starting with a sick child,” Steinem told the Times. The letter was signed by 200 other prominent women, from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to novelist Jhumpa Lahiri.
Some of those women were in attendance last Wednesday, at a City Hall rally launching the Women for Paid Sick Days Initiative. Author and activist Deanna Zandt reminded the crowd that paid sick leave is just the latest in a long line of reforms that supposedly “would have destroyed business as we knew it…Abolition of slavery. Women voting. Child labor laws. The forty-hour work week. Birth control pills. Marriage equality, for race and for sexuality. You get my point. It’s time to be on the side of history and the side of women’s rights.”
Indeed. At a moment when too many low-wage and unemployed Americans are struggling—like the three New Yorkers profiled by the Times on Saturday—it’s frankly shameful to see politicians drag their feet on such a common sense reform.
Of course, popular measures like paid sick days would be harder to stonewall if the media paid more attention to them. Last week, Yahoo made news by naming Marissa Mayer as its first pregnant CEO. Legitimate news, and a sign of progress to be sure. But as Bryce Covert argued, “it’s far from the change we need for women’s workplace equality.” And media coverage of Mayer’s ascension—like the debate surrounding Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic story on “having it all”—seemed almost willfully blind to the challenges facing the millions of working women without a day of paid leave. While Mayer says she’ll choose to take a very short maternity leave (and to keep working throughout), millions of working moms have no choice but to rush back to work to pay the bills, and have no easy access to childcare when they do. Amid the talk about whether women at the top can have it all, what about the women who fear losing everything?
It’s great that pregnancy didn’t prevent Mayer from getting her historic promotion. But it’s absurd that sickness still costs other women their jobs. That’s a story that deserves more attention, and a cause that deserves more support—and more urgency.