28 July 2008

Chicken Soup for Whom?

NPR’s July 28th Morning Edition tackled a real concern plaguing many of America’s workers: sick leave.

What it left out, however, was a discussion of how this issue disproportionately impacts women, who have always shouldered more of the responsibility nursing sick children and relatives back to health. Moreover, taking sick leave is especially challenging for low-income women, who are already confronting a number of other barriers to their economic stability and work-place flexibility.

Focusing on workers in two swing states, the poll (conducted by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Harvard School for Public Health) found that 44 percent of employees in Ohio and 50 percent of employees in Florida had gone to work sometime in the last year when they felt that should stay at home due to financial concerns.

Robert Blendon, of the Harvard School for Public Health, identified two main reasons why people are going to work when they are ill:

  • They have no access to paid sick leave.
  • They feel pressure from their employer to go to work, regardless of their health.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 40 percent of women in America have no access to paid sick leave; another 13 percent of women cannot use sick leave to take care of an ailing child or family member. In other words, over half of working women must choose between serving chicken soup to a coughing child or bringing home the paycheck that pays for that chicken soup. Given that many women have limited access to health care, that financial strain adds another layer of expense and difficulty.

For women living in poverty—who are disproportionately women of color and single mothers—the situation is bleaker. Three out of every four of these women sacrifices a day of pay for their own or a family member’s health.

Some cities and states have proposed legislation to guarantee paid sick leave to workers, but a piecemeal approach will not protect workplace safety and alleviate employee anxiety at the pace that our struggling economy demands.

A comprehensive, national response
—like that proposed by Senator Ted Kennedy and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the Healthy Families Actwould have a uniquely positive impact on economic stability and job security of low-income women, single-mothers, and women of color and their families. A Ms. Foundation grantee partner and proponent of the bill, the MultiState Working Families Consortium, recently published this report discussing the need for family-friendly legislation.

As we at the Ms. Foundation have seen time and again, addressing the needs and prioritizing the solutions of low-income women and women of color lays the foundation for policy improvements that benefit workers and communities across the board.

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