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Comparison of paid leave availability by race
American exceptionalism always gets a big round of applause from most U.S. audiences. That's at least partly because politicians who speak about the matter fail to get specific after saying ours is the most powerful nation on the planet, which is undoubtedly true, and the most prosperous, which depends quite a lot on how that is measured.

In fact, some examples of American exceptionalism are pathetic. Take, for example, paid leave. As Laura Clawson has written,  the United States lags far behind not only the developed countries in guaranteeing paid leave—sick leave, family leave, medical leave—but lags most of the world's less developed nations as well:

Only one in five low-wage workers have paid sick leave, and 48 percent of all full-time workers in the private sector have no access to paid medical or family leave.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research found in a 2009 study of 22 nations with comparable economies that the United States was one of only three that did not have policies mandating employers to provide paid sick leave for short-term illnesses. (The other two were Canada and Japan.) The United States was the only nation of those 22 not to provide at least some paid days off for employees undergoing a 50-day cancer treatment.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) has found that people of color are less likely to have access to paid leave of any kind than are white workers, women are less likely to have it than men, and private-sector workers are less likely to have it than those in the public sector. But, in every category, every sector, large percentages of all workers must take days off without pay if they get the flu, have to take care of a child or elderly parent or recharge with even a short vacation.

Across the board, Latinos are the least likely to have access to paid sick days (only 38.4 percent) or paid parental leave (only 25.1 percent) of any racial or ethnic group. Some opponents of paid leave legislation argue that workers do not need leave that is specifically earmarked for illness or birth when they can take paid vacation instead. Fewer than half (44.3 percent) of Latino workers, however, even have access to paid vacation [as compared with 63 percent or better for whites, blacks and Asians], and many workers cannot use vacation on a moment’s notice, like when a child wakes up with a high fever and a father needs to take an unplanned sick day. For too many Latinos, being a good worker and a good family member has become mutually exclusive.
Opposition to paid leave is firmly rooted in the Right. This will, it is said, hurt small businesses and should not be a matter for government to be "meddling" in. Statistics, however, show that the lack of paid leave harms not only individuals but the economy. For instance, only 42 percent of Latinos visited a medical professional in 2010, 15 percent below the overall national average. The failure to see a physician (or a dentist) over a long period of time can result in expensive visits to the emergency room. One study CAP cites concluded that if paid sick days were universally required, it would result in 1.3 million fewer emergency room visits and save the economy $1.3 billion annually.

But that's not the only savings. The American Productivity Audit completed in 2003 found that 71 percent of the $226 billion in lost productivity due to illness occurred because of sick employees showing up to work. Other studies have also shown that "presenteeism" of ailing workers is a larger productivity drain than absenteeism.

The key reason for Latinos being less covered for paid leave than other Americans is straightforward enough: Latinos are far more likely to earn less money than whites, blacks or Asians or to be in professional work categories where paid leave is more likely. It's no surprise to anyone that low-wage jobs provide fewer benefits and less protection for workers.

A thrice-proposed law would go part of the way to making the United States less exceptional in this arena: It's the Healthy Families Act introduced last year by Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. The bill would require employers to allow workers to earn seven days of paid leave time including paid time for family care.

The bill never made it out of committee. Similar legislation didn't emerge from committee in the 111th Congress. And similar legislation didn't even get a hearing in the 110th Congress. There's no excuse for this. Hearings should be held, the bill tweaked if necessary and reported for a full debate and vote on the Senate floor. In a Senate with a majority of Democrats, passing it, in the absence of a filibuster, ought to be a piece of cake.

The House is, of course, another story. But even when Democrats can't get past the obstacles Republicans put in their path, they should be showing the nation the kind of legislation they would be passing and signing into law if voters gave them the majorities they need. One thing about showing what you would do if you had enough voters behind you is that the presentation itself helps get more voters behind you.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Sat Nov 24, 2012 at 01:55 PM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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