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Lack of Sick Leave Legislation Is Getting Old, and So Are Your Parents

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Until recently, many of us twentysomethings believed that we were invincible. Alas, in these tough economic times, some of us have succumbed-- gracefully, no doubt-- to that catchy "last one hired, first one fired" refrain. Some of our smugness may be gone, but at least we still have our dashing good looks and our health, right?

But what about our parents? I've recently begun thinking about mine. My mom walks religiously and eats organic, darling. Dad is a 61-year-old trapped in a 45-year-old's body. He hasn't touched a drop of liquor in 20 years (had a lifetime share back in the Russian Motherland), doesn't smoke or even drink coffee, and can be seen darting back and forth in his pool year-round. Unfortunately, absolutely none of these enviable habits guarantee that my parents will remain healthy in the years to come.

The difficult realization that my parents are mere mortals made my heart skip a beat when I learned about Melton v. Farmers Insurance Group, a November 2008 U.S. District Court decision which ruled that Farmers was not required to grant an employee's request to work from home in order to care for her cancer-stricken mother. The employee that brought the suit, Shawna Melton, is a single-mother with a young child. Melton's request to work from home was denied and eventually she was fired for excessive absenteeism. Melton sued her employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and Oklahoma public policy. The court ruled that though they were "not unmoved" by the plaintiff's situation, the company was not guilty of discrimination under those laws.

Whatever the legal intricacies of this particular case, there is a greater social issue at play. In the United States, there is no law that requires employers to provide employees with sick days, let alone allow employees to take sick days to care for ill family members. This is not the case in other rich countries: of the top 20 economies in the world, the United States is the only one that does not have a national standard for paid sick days. As a result, nearly half of all full-time private sector employees in the U.S. get no paid sick days at all.

Why doesn't our system of social protections help us deal with events as inevitable and uncontrollable as the illness of our children and parents? Why should we have to sue--sometimes unsuccessfully--to take care of our families, in a country that so vehemently espouses the importance of "family values"?

To my mind, the best course of action for Farmers would have been to grant Ms. Melton's request to work from home (they had, after all, previously allowed an employee to work from home to care for his disabled wife. Is it really fair to leave these decisions up to managers?) Farmers would have gained a more productive and eternally loyal employee--and probably lowered overhead office costs to boot. But how far should the law go in regulating employer actions? Can you really legislate flexibility?

Certainly, employers should be free to run their companies as they see fit. But what if they prefer not to hire Asians or lesbians or balding men? We have laws against that. (Okay, maybe not for bald guys.) Laws are extremely important in our society; companies fear lawsuits and jurisprudence often shapes our norms. We cannot always rely on lawsuits, however, to solve our social problems. For one thing, the legal process is costly and time-consuming. Besides, in some cases laws have not kept up with dramatic changes in our society, such as the rise of single-parent families (see Melton v. Farmers).

If we really want change, we have to demand more responsive legislation and far more responsive employers. In 2005, Senator Edward Kennedy introduced the Healthy Families Act, federal legislation that would have given most workers the right to seven paid sick days a year to take care of their medical needs and the medical needs of their families. The bill was never voted on.

The political dillydallying on sick leave is getting old--and so are our parents, I'm afraid. At the end of the day, if I was in the position of having to care for a sick parent I would want the option of leave and of an alternative work arrangement-- wouldn't you? Your parents may be superhuman in your eyes, but at some point they will need your help. Will your employer stand in the way?

A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.

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