Op Ed

We Need Paid Sick Leave Now!

Most of the many workers laid off have no paid leave. This is a crisis.

By - Mar 24th, 2020 03:34 pm
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The women of 9 to 5 come to the Capitol to lobby for the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, a new bill that would create a pool of employees in Wisconsin to provide paid leave for employees in Oct. 2019. File photo by Melanie Conklin/Wisconsin Examiner.

The women of 9 to 5 come to the Capitol to lobby for the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, a new bill that would create a pool of employees in Wisconsin to provide paid leave for employees in Oct. 2019. File photo by Melanie Conklin/Wisconsin Examiner.

The coronavirus pandemic has made it painfully obvious: We need access to paid sick time to care for all in Wisconsin, we need it across the country and we need it now more than ever.

In Wisconsin, only 27% of workers have access to any form of employment-protected leave, paid or unpaid. And nearly 30% of working families have incomes that are way below the poverty level so they are in no position to stay home and lose their paycheck or their job.

Nationwide, more than one of every four workers is without paid sick leave, and for low-wage workers, it’s two out of every three who lack it.

In normal times, this situation is callous and wrong-headed because workers are forced to choose between going to work when they, or their children are sick or staying home and risk losing their jobs.

But in times of a pandemic, this situation is absolutely devastating.

No matter how often workers with no paid time off are told to stay home if they’re not feeling well, many have no choice but to show up to feed their families — and spread the virus.

This crisis demands immediate action at the state and federal level.

Here in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers was right to declare a state of emergency.

He was right to empower the Department of Health Services to purchase and distribute medications to patients, regardless of whether they have health insurance or not.

And he was right to express concern for low-income and homeless people, and to point our health care workers toward them.

But he could do more. He should call the Legislature back into session to pass a pending bill to establish a paid family and medical leave insurance fund and another bill to allow all workers to earn paid sick days.  The Legislature also has to ensure safety nets are protected and expanded to meet the increase of families who will need emergency assistance.

Nationally, Congress did the right thing by passing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, but it doesn’t go far enough.

The bill gives 10 sick days to all public employees and to most private employees. But 10 days isn’t adequate, given the toll the pandemic is taking.

Second, the bill exempts companies with 500 workers or more, so some of the companies in America are under no obligation to offer their employees paid sick leave. Many of these employees are women and people of color, who are in lower-paying jobs and are the most vulnerable to how devastating these unprecedented times could be.

Third, it allows companies with fewer than 50 employees to apply to the Department of Labor for an exemption.

Even with these faults, it’s much better than nothing. And shame on Wisconsin’s Republican delegation for all voting against it. How callous can you get?

We needed paid leave yesterday.

Had Scott Walker and Republicans in the Legislature not stolen our win, Milwaukee would have had paid sick days for the past nine years.

And we really need generous paid leave today so that Wisconsin working families can have better tomorrows.

As a state, we are as healthy as the most vulnerable among us. Let’s stand together for paid leave to help us get through these difficult times.

Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.

Linda Garcia Barnard is the deputy director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, based in Milwaukee.

Matt Rothschild is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

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