Wednesday, April 29, 2009

To Fight Swine Flu Virus, Take a Paid Sick Day and Call Me in the Morning

By Linda Meric

In light of the outbreak of swine flu virus in Mexico – and the 64 confirmed cases, so far, in the United States – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that “to stay healthy” people should cover their mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, wash their hands more often, and avoid touching their eyes, mouth or nose.

The CDC also recommends that if you feel sick, you should stay home from work, limiting contact with others to keep from infecting them. It’s that final recommendation that might prove the fatal flaw in health education efforts designed to avoid a swine flu pandemic in the United States.

Many American workers who feel ill can’t stay home from work. They must go to work anyway because so many – 57 million workers to be precise – don’t have a single paid sick day. Especially in this dismal economy, most workers cannot afford to help protect the public health by staying home when they are sick because doing so might mean that they lose a day’s pay, or even worse, their jobs.

Low-wage workers are the least likely workers to have jobs that allow them to earn paid sick days. What does this mean for an America in fear of a pandemic flu virus? It means restaurants, child care centers, nursing homes, hotels, public transit systems, schools and offices across the country could potentially be full of infected workers, who should be home in bed or at the doctor’s officer getting treatment, but will be on the job instead. It means that instead of containing and minimizing public health risks, we’ll be maximizing them. It means many sick workers could be making other workers – and the public – sick.

Coming to work sick doesn’t help employers either. Workers who must report to work when they are ill are less productive. They don’t save money for business; they add to the costs of doing business. The United States is the only industrialized nation that has no state or federal law requiring paid sick days. As a result, half of the workforce has none. In addition, 100 million workers lack a single paid sick day they can use to care for an ill child, spouse or parent. Not only do we lack a federal sick leave policy, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and Milwaukee are the only cities that require employers to provide paid sick days for all workers.

Most Americans, though, believe paid sick days should be a basic right guaranteed by law. Public opinion polls show that a majority consistently list paid sick days as “very important.” Allowing workers to take short breaks from their jobs when their health, or the health of their families, demands it, made sense to nearly 90% of people polled in 2007. This basic labor standard is feasible, affordable, and is good public and workplace policy.

Senator Ted Kennedy and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro are expected to re-introduce the Healthy Families Act in Congress next month. It would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days a year to care for themselves or their families. Women’s, labor, education, community and other organizations are calling for members of Congress to co-sponsor, support, pass – and send the Healthy Families Act to the President’s desk. Maybe this swine flu scare, along with the voices of the American people, will move our Congress to action. To fight the spread of disease and ensure the public health, a basic labor standard for paid sick days is the remedy.

Meric is Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women

For Equal Pay Day: Full-Size Paychecks for All

By Linda Meric

National Executive Director

On this Equal Pay Day 2009, 9to5 members from the Midwest to the California coast will distribute 3/4–size cookies and vegan cupcakes to show the persistence of the gap between what women earn and what men earn.

More than four decades after Congress made wage discrimination based on gender illegal, women in the U.S. still earn only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men. That’s a fact based on Census Bureau statistics of all full-time, year-round workers in this country. For women of color, the gap is even wider. African-American women earn only 69 cents for every dollar earned by men, Latinas only 59 cents.

But let’s be clear: women don’t choose to earn less than men. There are several factors at play, including the fact that women are overrepresented in undervalued and underpaid occupations. For instance, women make up 99 percent of the secretaries, 97 percent of the child care workers, 76 percent of the household servants and 72 percent of the restaurant servers.

In addition, too many working women are penalized financially for care-giving because they lack access to policies like paid sick days and family leave insurance. Another factor is the continuing social pressure on young women and girls that dissuades them from considering scientific careers. As an example, 34 percent of all high school aged girls in the US report being advised by a faculty member NOT to take math in their senior year. And finally, there’s straight out gender discrimination. It is a reality that even when working in the same occupation as a man, women earn less!

This year, this nation took a small but significant step forward in closing the pay gap. On January 29, President Barack Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which reverses the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in 2007 (Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.) and restores the ability of victims of ongoing wage discrimination to hold their employers accountable for injustice and challenge the practice in court.

Up next is the Paycheck Fairness Act. In January of this year, a bi-partisan effort helped pass it in the House of Representatives. Now it must be passed in the Senate. It will equip women with the tools to fight gender-based wage discrimination by updating the Equal Pay Act and requiring that employers prove that gender-based pay differences are legitimate. It will make the remedies for wage discrimination as strong as remedies for other types of discrimination and remove the barriers that have kept women from joining together to fight wage discrimination in class action lawsuits.

What else can we do? Let’s work to keep equal opportunity programs in place, so that education, jobs and promotions are open and offered to women. Let’s call on our employers to examine pay practices and correct them if inequities exist. And let’s support work-family policy like paid sick days and family leave insurance so that women aren’t penalized in their paychecks for care-giving responsibilities at home. On Equal Pay Day 2009, let us all resolve to stand-up for ourselves in the workplace and speak out about injustice.

The sad fact is that if the wage gap continues unchecked, women won’t reach pay equity until the year 2057 -- and we can’t afford to wait that long. Let’s close and eliminate the wage gap now:

Full-size cookies, cupcakes – and paychecks -- for all!