Labor's Voice for Change (36) May 19, 2009

169 Countries Offer Paid Sick Leave to Workers, But U.S. Workers Struggle to Get Any Sick Days

By Harry Kelber

The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, yet its workers have the poorest health benefits, not only of those in the industrialized nations, but also in comparison with many developing and impoverished ones as well.

With the support of the Ford Foundation, the Work, Family and Equity Index is the first systematic global study to measure policies for working families in 177 countries. The study used extensive data from independent research institutions, as well as from the United Nations, World Bank and ILO.

Out of 173 countries studied, 169 offer guaranteed leave with income to women in connection with childbirth; 98 of these countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave.

In contrast, the United States does not guarantee any paid leave for mothers in any segment of the work force. There are only three other countries besides the U.S that do not provide paid sick leave: Liberia, Papua, New Guinea and Switzerland.

At least 145 countries provide paid sick days for short- or long-term illnesses, with 136 offering a week or more annually. In more than 81 countries, workers receive sickness benefits for 26 weeks or until recovery. The U.S. provides only unpaid leave for serious illnesses through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which does not cover all workers.

Sixty-six countries ensure that fathers either receive paid paternity leave or have a right to paid parental leave; 31 of these countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave The U.S. does not grant fathers either paid paternity leave or paid parental leave. Forty-nine countries guarantee leave for major family events, such as marriage and funerals; in 49 of these countries, leave for one or both of these family events is paid.

Why Paid Sick Leave Is Important for American Workers

American workers, who spend some of the best years of their lives to make their employers profitable and wealthy, sometimes get sick while doing so. Or maybe, there’s a sick member of the family who needs their help at home. Shouldn’t they be allowed to take time off without fear of being permanently replaced? And shouldn’t they be paid sick leave, like workers in other countries?

The Democrats have introduced a bill in Congress, the Health Family Act, that requires employers with 15 workers or more to provide paid sick leave under a complicated formula, that would give workers one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, “up to 7 days.” With all that detailed bookkeeping handled by the employer, it’s easy to see how workers would be short-changed on their paid sick leave. Why didn’t the bill simply say “seven paid sick days”? You can guess why.

Even so, the nation’s corporations are going to fight the bill. They oppose any legislation that makes life a little better for their employees, especially if it’s costly and “puts them at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace.”

With swine flu still a problem, paid sick leave would be especially helpful to poor and middle-class workers. But the Democrats have already made a concession. The bill won’t be considered until 2010, at the earliest, and who knows what will happen then?

Isn’t it amazing what guff American workers will take from their employers without fighting back? Don’t 16 million union members have any power at all?

Article 37 of “Labor’s Voice for Change” will be posted on Thursday, May 21, 2009