In rolling out the issues he hopes will define the final two years of his administration, President Obama has proposed two workplace initiatives: requiring companies with 15 or more employees to provide them seven days of sick leave per year to their full time workers, and encouraging states to establish paid family leave programs for new parents or workers tending to family members with significant health issues. As with most such proposals, the devil will be in the details, but we believe the president is on the right track.
In fact, California got there first. Under the state's Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014, as of July 1 employees who work at least 30 days in a calendar year must be offered one hour of sick pay — up to 24 hours total — for every 30 hours worked. (The president's proposal is more ambitious.) And the State Disability Insurance program's Paid Family Leave, which was first offered more than a decade ago, seems to be working well. It pays 55% of lost wages, up to about $1,100 a week, for a maximum of six weeks for new parents or people taking time off work to care for ailing relatives. The program is funded through workers' payroll deductions.
Instituting sick leave for workers nationwide makes sense: Those who are ill should not have to choose between recuperation and a day or two of pay. It's true that allowing workers to accrue paid sick days could add to employers' costs of doing business depending on how it is financed, but the public good outweighs that concern — especially when workers come in close contact with others as part of their job.
The president is asking Congress to create a formal leave program for federal employees. His solution for private-sector workers, however, relies on action by the states. Obama instructed the Department of Labor to offer up to $1 million from the current budget for competitive grants to help states conduct feasibility studies on family leave programs. In addition, the budget he'll soon propose will include a $2.2-billion request to help five unspecified states administer and pay for family leave programs. We have some reservations about a policy that rewards states that have not yet addressed this issue — at the expense of states that have. But given the lack of details, we'll reserve final judgment.
The United States lags far behind the rest of the industrialized world in recognizing that a healthy workforce is a productive workforce, and that mothers, especially, often sacrifice income and in some cases careers for the sake of family. If we are a nation that values families, our work policies should reflect that.