In today’s world of paralyzed politics, at least on the national level, it seems impossible that any series of policies would be supported by 86 percent of voters — including 96 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of independents — doesn’t it?
But when it comes to workplace policies like paid family leave and earned sick days, the vast majority of Americans — across party lines and across demographics — agree we need laws to keep working families economically secure and help balance the demands of work and family. And why not? It has been shown that without a doubt, these policies strengthen families, protect public health and boost the economy.
My work, and the work of my committee and of many advocates across the state of Vermont, focused on these very issues this past biennium. The struggles we had in passing legislation mirrored a certain status quo that developed over the past generation, where workers were disposable, real wages declined, and the effects of the growing service economy were negatively oriented away from the health and well-being of the families who were stuck in these low-wage jobs. And the success we found on issues like equal pay, quality child and home health care, and minimum wage made us all proud that we were providing real relief for working Vermonters.
But the reality is too many workers across the country still lack paid sick days and family and medical leave insurance. That means a father who gets sick has to choose between going to work sick or missing income his family depends on. That means many people can’t be by the side of an ailing parent at the hospital and during recovery. That means a sick child has to go to school with the flu because his mom can’t afford to miss a day’s wages to stay home with him.
That’s why President Obama is bringing together stakeholders across this issue — workers, business owners, labor leaders, legislators and work-family advocates — for the first Summit on Working Families on Monday. I am proud to be one of several representatives from Vermont traveling to Washington to share our experiences fighting for policies that benefit employees, families and their employers in a way that values working families and gives both employers and employees tools that can create a compassionate workplace.
And while we passed some excellent legislation to address some of these issues in Vermont, we also did not pass other important legislation, such as earned sick days. This policy, ardently opposed by our local chambers of commerce in lockstep with the national chambers, is supported by over 70 percent of Vermonters, small businesses like Red Hen Baking in Middlesex and Hen of the Wood restaurant in Waterbury and Burlington, and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. It is a policy that, when passed, will allow workers who do not currently have access to paid time off an opportunity to earn hours based on the number of hours they work. It is compassionate and mirrors the generosity shared by most Vermont businesses as a reasonable benefit.
We know these are winning issues. Earned sick day policies have been passing in municipalities across the nation. In the past year alone we’ve seen paid sick day laws pass in Portland, Oregon, New York City, and Jersey City and Newark, New Jersey. Washington, D.C., and New York City recently expanded their existing paid sick day laws to cover more workers, and Connecticut passed a bill that is now regarded as too weak, especially compared with our bill.
I look forward to joining hundreds of other advocates, business owners and policymakers in Washington and sharing the experience of our fights in Vermont to move policies that work for our families and our employers and begin to turn the tide back toward a more positive workplace that just makes sense for employers and employees.
We know families and businesses do better when workers don’t have to make the impossible choice between financial stability and family care. The United States is the only developed nation with no guaranteed paid sick days when a worker or family member is ill. When you consider that only 12 percent of Americans have access to paid family and medical leave, millions of families are only a serious illness away from financial disaster.
Now more than ever, we need policies that support families’ economic security and reduce unemployment. I’m proud to be part of the White House summit. Our Vermont voices will help ensure that those in Washington are listening.
Tom Stevens is a state representative from Waterbury.MORE IN Commentary
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