Where We Stand

Paid sick leave should be a right for all workers.

By Randi Weingarten, AFT President

FLU SEASON THIS WINTER was particularly pernicious, with thousands of people suffering from fever, aches and fatigue. Those who don’t have paid sick leave have faced a terrible dilemma—stay home and get better but lose wages, or go to work and possibly infect colleagues and the people they serve. Unions, including those that represent our healthcare workers, have championed and negotiated paid sick leave through their collective bargaining contracts. As a result, many of our healthcare workers and the communities they serve don’t face that predicament.

Approximately 40 percent of people who work for private sector companies do not get paid sick leave for their own illnesses or injuries. That’s wrong. It should be a right for all workers.

Without the opportunity to have a voice at the table, employees are too often deprived of something as important as earning a few days a year of paid sick time. President Obama understands this and announced support for the Healthy Families Act, which would allow employees to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave per year to care for themselves or a family member. This isn’t just humane; it makes good economic sense. Going to work sick can make a lot of other people sick, which will mean less productivity, less profits and less goodwill—a big problem for anyone’s bottom line.

The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation—an affiliate of AFT-Oregon—went on strike late last year over the right to have paid sick and parental leave. The University of Oregon graduate workers fought to stop the Hobson’s choice between their academic careers and starting a family or taking care of their health.

Graduate teaching fellow Katie Jo LaRiviere has given birth twice during her career at the University of Oregon. “After each birth, I returned to work on the following Monday. I did not have paid leave in either situation, and my family could not afford a short paycheck,” Katie explains, “so I did not cancel any classes as a result of giving birth, and only missed one graduate seminar. I was having a baby that night.”

The irony of the University of Oregon situation is that the president of the university is an outspoken advocate of paid paternity leave and he, himself, took advantage of it. Yet, Scott Coltrane’s own employees had to strike for automatic paid parental and sick leave. He wrote in The Atlantic, “I suspect that any costs associated with taking parental leave will be outweighed by potential gains. … And corporations and governments, who want to see a more resilient and equal-opportunity work force, will realize it is in their best interests to help balance work and family obligations for everyone.”

Obviously, it’s one thing to talk the talk; it’s another thing to walk the walk. The strike was eventually settled and an agreement worked out on a leave policy.

If workers didn’t have a union, they wouldn’t have had a voice at the table to even begin the discussion.

I spoke last month at the Albert Shanker Institute conference about a new model of unionism—one that makes community our new density. In this renewed American labor movement, we are bargaining for the common good—both to represent our members at the negotiating table and to stand up for the communities we serve. Our advocacy for health issues—something we do routinely in collective bargaining contracts—is good for the whole community, especially so, perhaps, in hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

Right now, 82 percent of union workers have paid sick leave, compared with 63 percent of nonunion workers. In this renewed American labor movement, we must join with community and fight for all workers—whether or not they’re in a union—to have access to paid sick leave.

Healthwire, Spring 2015 Download PDF (592.85 KB)
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