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America Trails the Developed World on Paid Leave For Working People

05/07/2015 04:30 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

For all of the talk of American exceptionalism, the U.S. is exceptionally bad in the treatment of its workers.

America--the world's largest economy--is one of the few advanced nations without a national policy guaranteeing paid sick leave for workers. And the nation and its working families pay the price when they cannot take off the time they need to care for themselves or their children.

As part of a national tour to bring attention to the need for greater workplace flexibility for families, Valerie Jarrett--Senior Advisor to President Obama and Chair of the White House Council on Women & Girls--participated at a town hall discussion at Philadelphia's City Hall on April 21. The event was called "Lead on Leave: Empowering Working Families Across America." Jarrett was joined by Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

The Obama administration is making a push for a national leave policy. The Healthy Families Act would provide seven days of paid leave for all Americans. In addition, the president directed federal workers to provide employees with up to six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child, with the hope of extending this benefit to all workers across the country. Further, Obama has called on Congress to raise the minimum wage.

"Workplace policies make for happier, healthier and more productive workers," said Mayor Nutter, adding that advocating for "family values" mean valuing families.

"More productivity, of course, means a stronger economy here in Philadelphia, across Pennsylvania and the United States of America," said Nutter, calling such policies "an ultimate win win win." The mayor argued that Philadelphia's leave policies are one of the most progressive in the U.S., which includes four weeks of paid leave for birth and adoptive parents. In addition, city contractors are required to pay their employees and subcontractors a livable wage and sick leave.

"The United States is one of theonly developed nations that does not have a national policy of guaranteed paid sick time. And I believe this is really an embarrassment to our great country," said Philadelphia City Council member Bill Greenlee.

"It is unfair that if you go to work in a suit like this you most likely get paid sick days. But if you work in a smock a server's uniform or an apron and by theway also probably get paid less you don't have such a luxury of approximately 43 million American workers do not receive sick time benefits, which means they must come to work with the flu or worse, or face losing a day's pay and possibly the loss of their job," he added. "Parents are forced to choose between earning money for groceries or staying home to care for a child with the chicken pox. This is not ideal and not only unfair, it is not sound economic policy."

In her remarks, Jarrett noted she is going around the country, taking a look at cities and states that are providing leave and sick leave to their employees. Private sector employers that have entered the twenty-first century embracing innovative work flexibility policies have had more productive and loyal employees, less staff turnover and have become more profitable. One small company, the Obama adviser noted, gives every employee $3,000 which must be used for vacation.

These changes in culture are not niceties, Jarrett argued, but reflective of the broader issue of ensuring twenty-first workplaces reflect the needs and values of today's labor force. For example, half of workers are women. In 60 percent of families with children, both parents work, and 40 percent of working mothers are single mothers or the primary breadwinner. "Half of men and women have said that they've given up a new job opportunity because of work-life balance, which is encouraging to see that the men have the same challenge, I suppose, that the women have," Jarett added.

"More and more men want to take advantage of paternity leave, and not just because it's on the books of their company, but they want their company to embrace the value of both parents participating in those early moments of a child's life. They're unique and don't come around again," she said.

However, the issue of leave is only one of a number of issues of importance to working families. For instance, many working people are raising their children in poverty. Women only make 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, and women of color make even less. Often, childcare costs more than state college tuition, and women do not enter or reenter the workforce because they cannot afford to do so.
Making the case that America cannot afford to have 43 million Americans without a single day of sick leave, Jarrett mentioned the discussions she had with workers in a recent roundtable discussion. "In fact, one of them said to me it's been 23 years, and his employer has not provided sick leave, vacation time or healthcare. That is not who we are as a country.

Following the town hall, Ms. Jarrett mentioned in an interview that given the U.S. lags behind other nations on leave policies, she has examined best practices in other countries as well.

"Our companies are competing across the world. People want that 'made in the U.S.A.' stamp on their products," she noted. "That change will come from the bottom up. Change is always frightening until it becomes standard operating procedure."

"One of the strengths of the U.S. is we're innovators. We have to put a national spotlight on what works," Jarrett added. "States and cities are looking at this all over the county and want to know what works."

What has not worked is the squeezing of the American worker in recent decades. As corporations amass hefty profits, the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest among us widens, and labor is shortchanged. Poverty is on the rise, and Congress seems unable and unwilling to address this. Ordinary working people deserve at least what the rest of the world offers. The U.S. is playing catch up, and now is as good a time as any to enter a new century.