New Orleans Years ago, we picked up the issue of sick leave protection for workers in states and municipalities as a national evolution of the living wage campaigns. The recession and other forces slowed progress, but still victories were claimed in the state of Connecticut, largely due to work led by the Working Families Party there, as well as in a few cities like San Francisco. The new mayor of New York City is now calling for a sick leave policy for all workers there as a major plank in his remedies for the “tale of two cities.”
Winning sick leave is not an easy campaign, as time has shown, because of the virulent opposition by employers, who often see it as simply more compensated nonproductive time or in simple English, paid days to stay home, suspecting that workers are not truly sick. Unlike living wage increases, sick leave is less predictable, so harder for them to accurately pass on the costs to consumers as well. Studies in San Francisco have shown few if any negative impacts from the sick leave policy and many argue the policy has increased worker stability, reduced turnover, and generally created a healthier workplace.
In reading about an overlooked piece of New York City legislation in the waning days of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration called the Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act, I wondered if that might be just the thing to divide the opposition and create momentum for not only protecting the jobs of pregnant women, but then getting traction on the transition to fuller sick leave and the greater job protection for all workers. The conservatives that have made abortion one of their litmus tests, even in the face of studies showing that even without their efforts abortion is declining, want to defend pregnant women and their unborn babies, even in most cases where women themselves would prefer to defend themselves, would be hard pressed to oppose similar Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Acts all around the country. You can’t have it both ways, right?
The protection is meaningful, but straightforward. Reasonable accommodation would have to be made to allow pregnant women to continue safely working as long as possible throughout the term of their pregnancy. Reasonable accommodation follows ADA language, so its meaning is pretty clear and settled. The case that provoked some attention in New York City was a woman with previous miscarriages whose doctor said she could work, but could not lift heavy objects. Who could disagree with this? Not many, and those who did would do so at their peril, which may be exactly why this was such a no-brainer in New York City, that it is only now attracting attention.
Once you recognize that pregnant women should be entitled to protection to be able to keep their jobs, it is no longer a bridge too far to cross over to the need for some amount of protected sick leave whether a couple of days or a week or whatever. All of which might just make protecting pregnant workers the critical step that opens up widespread victories in making sick leave an entitlement locally and at the state level, and then eventually everywhere.