The Labor Department is set to issue a ruling tomorrow stating that the Family and Medical Leave Act — which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers to care for a sick child — applies to same-sex partners and their children. The ruling “tackles a question not explicitly addressed in the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act,” and also states that worker need not have legally adopted a child to use the time off.
Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Equality Council, “estimated that 1 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families were raising 2 million children.” The Labor Department’s ruling makes it explicit that “if you act like a parent, do the work of a parent and raise a child like a parent, then you are a parent for the purpose of the Family and Medical Leave Act,” she said.
This is a good step by the Obama administration, and is part of an ongoing effort to ensure that benefits in the workplace to not exclude gay workers or their families. But the federal government is still stuck guaranteeing only unpaid sick leave, when it really should be able to guarantee paid sick leave for all workers.
The United States is all alone in the industrialized world in not mandating some sort of paid sick leave, which nearly 50 percent of private sector workers do not have (including 86 percent of food service workers and 78 percent of hotel workers). Lost productivity due to sick workers attending work and infecting other employees costs the U.S. economy $180 billion annually.
Lack of paid leave not only means sick employees coming in to work, but sick children being sent to school by parents who can’t afford to take time off to care for them. In fact, according to a new survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago “nearly twice as many workers without paid sick days (24 percent) have sent a sick child to school or daycare than workers with paid sick days (14 percent).” 16 percent of those polled “say they have lost a job for taking time off from work to care for a sick child or family member, or to cope with their own illness.”
“This new survey shows conclusively that our nation is paying a high price for not allowing workers to earn paid sick days,” said Deborah Leff, president of the Public Welfare Foundation. “It demonstrates that not having paid sick days drives up the costs of health care and causes more people to go to work sick, creating public health risks for everyone.” In order to rectify this situation, Congress could pass the Healthy Families Act, which would guarantee seven paid sick days to all employees at firms with more than 15 employees, which could also be used to care for sick children or family members.
Again, the Labor Department’s step is laudable and necessary. But the U.S. is still light-years behind the rest of the world in terms of taking care of its workers, gay and straight alike.