11/23/2009 10:15 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why I support the Healthy Families Act

It may come as a surprise to many people who have terrific workplace benefits that there are millions and millions of Americans living in fear of getting sick because of the impact it will have on their income. There are workers across the country who come to work sick because they simply cannot afford to stay home.

I'm not talking about people who encounter a catastrophic illness, though that's a topic that also requires our attention. I'm talking about workers in every city and town in America that have little or no paid sick leave. Sadly, they fear getting a serious cold, or worse, which could mean losing a week's worth of pay or even their job altogether.

And that's why the late Senator Ted Kennedy and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro introduced the Healthy Families Act in Congress this year. The bill, apparently first introduced in Congress by congressional Democrats during the Administration of President George W. Bush, would allow employees to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave - for personal illness or an illness in the family like a sick child, parent or spouse - each calendar year.

This past May, support for the bill picked up steam in Congress and within the Obama Administration.

Rep. DeLauro testified at a congressional hearing in June and summarized the rationale behind the legislation and the impact it would have:

This month the Obama Administration threw its full support behind the bill. And used the opportunity to make the case for work-family balance. The leading federation of labor unions in the U.S. is also supporting the legislation. And for good reason.

First, it's urgently needed. The H1N1 crisis made it obvious that the American worker could miss a week or two of work with a flu virus before the government and health industries could mass produce a vaccine. While many large employers showed some flexibility in their sick leave policies this year, others did not.

Second, the Labor Department under President Obama has one of the most important tasks, and that's to bring back many vital workers' rights and protections literally stripped away by the Bush Administration during the last eight years and the previous Republican administrations.

So why do I personally support the bill?

It makes public health sense given the toll the H1N1 virus has taken on so many who have contracted it. In the interest of saving money, businesses could actually exacerbate a public health crisis, especially among those who need paid sick leave the most, by denying workers paid leave. We know that people who have poor health care coverage, or are uninsured, are more likely to come to work sick. And sick workers, particularly those with H1N1, put their co-workers at risk.

Additionally, I have believed for more than two decades that we must provide comprehensive reforms that make work pay. And this is not solely about money, it's also about family. In my experience it is women who are often impacted the most when it comes to paid sick leave. As a mother myself, I really appreciate the daily choices working mothers are forced to make for themselves and for their families.

Finally, I think it's important to note that workers' rights, and specifically paid leave and measures that support work-family balance, are areas in which the United States is actually behind other leading economic powers. According to a news report on an economic study published this month by a team of researchers in the United States and Canada, the U.S. "lags far behind other nations in offering paid sick days, paid parental leave and other workplace benefits that proponents consider vital to public health and workers rights."

And here's the kicker: The Reuters article on the study notes,

Of the world's 15 most competitive nations, 14 mandate paid sick leave, 13 guarantee paid maternal leave and 12 provide paid paternal leave by law. Eleven provide paid leave to care for children's health and eight provide paid leave for adult family care. The United States legally guarantees none of these policies to workers," the authors note. The findings are published in a new book, "Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth that We Can't Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone."

Now the business community, with which I worked over two decades to build common understanding when I headed up the AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley, and their allies among political conservatives, should take note. Paid sick leave is not a threat to American competitiveness, in fact it may turn out to be just the opposite. American workers who feel valuable and have a sense of economic security may be the kind of workers essential to our economic engine. And while federal legislation may not always be the answer, in lieu of a consensus among business leaders on this issue and in lieu of tough action in the state legislatures, it may be the only answer that will put in place the reasonable protections provided by paid sick leave.

And while this issue shouldn't be partisan, so often it falls on a Democratic Congress and Democratic White House and Labor Department to put in place labor law that puts workers and country first. If it were not for their leadership and the advocacy of the American labor movement, it's tough to imagine who would look after workers' interests at this important time.