08/20/2012 12:24 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

New Government Figures Confirm Huge Gaps in Access to Paid Leave

New figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show how serious the lack of earned sick time is for workers in this country -- and how those with the least financial cushion are also the least likely to get any paid time off.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics usually comes from employers. This newly released information comes from workers, in response to the American Time Use Survey (ATUS). For the first time, thanks to a module paid for by the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau, the survey included questions on access to and use of paid leave.

And here's what the workers said:

More than two in five (42 percent) private sector workers have no paid leave of any kind, including vacation.

Given the 'new normal' of families in the U.S. today, where only three in ten households with children had a parent home full time and two-thirds of women are either primary or co-primary breadwinners, these numbers make clear how badly our workplace policies need updating.

Behind the statistics are workers like Celina Alvarez in New York, fired from her restaurant job when she had to be hospitalized for a heart condition and needed a little time to recover. Or Brandon in Orlando, who got strep throat. Even though he called in to work and had a doctor's note, his boss at Burger King decided Brandon should lose his job.

Low-wage workers like Celina and Brandon have little if any savings to fall back on. Yet while more than 77 percent of management staff have paid leave, nearly 72 percent of workers in the leisure and hospitality industry have none. Almost half (48.2 percent) of all workers in the bottom wage quartile have no paid leave of any kind.

Grim Picture for Low-Wage, Part-time, Female, Latinos

At a time when many workers are forced to cobble together two or more part-time jobs, the report shows nearly three in four part-time workers aren't able to earn any paid time off.

Women tend to be disproportionately impacted because they are more likely to work part time, have greater care-giving responsibilities, and tend to have lower earnings than men.

Latino workers are even less likely than workers overall to have access to paid leave -- yet more likely than non-Latinos to be caring for a family member. Only 43 percent of Latinos are able to use paid leave. Yet when you look at the reasons why workers take off from work in a given week, Latinos are much more likely than others to need that time to deal with a family member's medical need or to take care of a child or elderly family member (12.4 percent of Latinos versus 7.4 percent of non-Latinos).

Just the Facts, Please
Reading a BLS report can be like looking at that photo where some people see a young woman in a bonnet, others see an old woman with a large nose and pointy chin. Corporate lobbyists walk away from these figures and say, "90 percent of all workers have some kind of leave." That's true -- if you mix executives with janitors, and paid time with unpaid.

We have no quarrel with executives getting paid sick days. But the workers who clean their office, deal with their customers, and guard their building should have them as well.