Friday, August 31, 2007

On Labor Day: How the U.S. Stacks Up for Those in Labor

Recently I gave a talk in Calgary, Canada for representatives of credit unions from around the world. The woman who introduced me, a director of marketing, was Canadian. “I just got back from maternity leave,” she told me, raving about her first child.

I know that Canadian law allows for nearly a year of leave at 55 percent pay. “How long did you take?” I asked.

“Oh, the whole year,” she replied. I mentioned that the Family and Medical Leave Act in the U.S. provides for considerably less time, 12 weeks, and that the time is unpaid. (I didn’t mention that it covers only half the workforce.) The vast majority of new mothers in the U.S. are back at work before 12 weeks. More than half of them get no pay at all.

Could she imagine having returned that soon, I asked. She worked her jaw for a few minutes without speaking. “I just couldn’t have done it,” she said finally. I felt as if I’d asked her to imagine feeding her child weeds.

Our interaction reminded me of that scene in Michael Moore’s film “Sicko” when he asks the Americans living in France how many sick days they received. “If you’re sick, you stay home,” one of them told him. “Yeah, but how many days do you get?” The answer: as long as you’re sick.

Hard to imagine for those living in the U.S., where no state or federal law requires any paid sick days at all – and where half the workforce has none. Seven out of ten workers in the U.S. have no paid sick time to care for a sick family member.

The next time you hear some lobbyist argue that our lack of standards is about economic competitiveness, remember this fact: Of the 20 most competitive nations in the world, the U.S. is the ONLY ONE which does not guarantee any paid sick days. Eighteen of those 20 countries guarantee at least 31 days of paid sick time.

Three decades years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, a friend in France wrote me to say how sorry she felt that I had to have my baby in the United States. She went on to list the standards available to everyone in France – not just paid maternity leave, but high-quality child care available on a sliding scale basis for babies, and pre-school free to every child at age two and a half. Nearly all French parents sent their kids to those pre-schools, even in homes where a parent was available during the day, because the experience was so positive.

At the time I was taken aback by my friend’s letter, a little embarrassed and a little envious. Today, I’m just angry – and determined to see this change before my children have children.

For those who labor and go through labor, or simply need time to care for loved ones of any age, it’s about time we created some new rules in this country – like a minimum number of paid sick days, and insurance programs that provide at least partial wage replacement during family and medical leave. It’s about time we made sure that family values don’t end at the workplace door.

I’d sure like to say to friends in other countries that the U.S. no longer stands alone.

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