Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism April 2008
The rights of workers have long been one of the bedrock principles of social justice and a priority of Reform Judaism. The minimum wage, the forty hour work week, the abolition of child labor, and family and medical leave have enhanced the quality of life for millions over successive generations. The ability of workers to earn paid sick leave continues this tradition of meeting the needs of workers and ensuring a high standard of American workplace productivity.
The landmark 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, supported by the Reform Movement, recognized the familial needs that tug at every worker. That law entitles workers at businesses with 50 or more employees to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to recuperate from a serious health condition, care for a sick family member or care for a new child. To qualify, employees must have worked for at least 12 months and 1,250 hours in those 12 months.
Yet existing state and federal laws are silent on the issue of short term paid sick leave. Today, nearly half (48%) of all private-sector workers have no paid sick days, and 13 percent of non-federal public-sector workers lack paid sick days; all federal employees have access to paid sick days. In total, roughly 57 million workers do not have any paid leave to care for their own health and 94 million workers do not have paid leave to care for a sick child or family member, out of a workforce of 135 million.
More than three out of four low-income workers do not have any paid sick days. Paid sick leave tends to be a benefit given to those in long-term, high-wage employment. Upper-income workers are three times more likely to have paid sick days than low-income workers. Access to paid sick days is largely limited to the top three income quartiles
Women are more likely to be impacted by a lack of paid sick days. They are over-represented in low-wage jobs and are most likely to act as the familys primary caregiver, responsible for handling doctors appointments and follow-up care for their children. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that in 2003, 49% of working mothers, as compared to 30% of working fathers, took time off work when a child was sick. The study also found that half of the 49% of working mothers who took time off did not receive paid sick leave. Too many women are forced to choose between going to work while a sick child sits at home or caring for their children and losing a paycheck (and potentially a job). Additionally, paid sick days would benefit workers who need to take time off to care for elderly parents. Thirty-five percent of workers, both women and men, reported caring for an older relative in the past year. As Baby Boomers age, these responsibilities will increase.
Members of the business community have reasonable concerns about the financial impact of mandated paid sick leave. They worry that these requirements will significantly increase costs, making it more difficult to expand and create jobs. Small businesses, in particular, may be threatened by increased costs. Lost flexibility in determining employee benefits packages is another major concern for small business owners, especially when many already provide some form of paid leave to employees. According to one poll, 75 percent of small business employers already voluntarily do so. Mandated paid sick leave would eliminate the ability of employers to provide employees with benefits tailor-made to their unique situations. On the other hand, some small business owners who already provide the benefits view mandatory paid sick leave as a way to level the playing field so they do not have to compete against businesses that do not offer it.
Regardless, there continue to be many workers without this critical protection. Today, two in five low-wage workers have no paid leave of any kind, including paid sick days, paid vacation, or paid personal days. Allowing working people to earn paid sick days will ensure a minimum standard of leave for workers. Furthermore, there are financial benefits to providing such leave by decreasing presenteeism, the practice of working when ill. Presenteeism leads to a loss in productivity when sick workers work less efficiently and less effectively and may infect co-workers. A Center on Law and Social Policy study shows that presenteeism likely costs the economy $180 billion annually. One study of pending federal legislation demonstrates that the money saved through instituting mandatory paid sick leave would far exceed any costs that would be accrued. Furthermore, presenteeism poses a public health concern as it leads to the spread of illnesses. Those who interact with the public every dayfood and public accommodation workers as well as workers in child care centers and nursing homesdisproportionately lack paid sick days. Paid sick days would provide broader societal benefits by promoting a healthy workforce; parental responsibility for healthy children; reduced short-term nursing home stays for the frail elderly and other medically needy individuals; and containment of individuals and insurers medical expenditures.
Crafting policies that provide a basic standard of leave for workers while remaining sensitive to the potential impacts on employers is critical to achieving a just solution for all. Legislation that would require employers to provide paid sick days is now being considered at the local, state, and federal levels. These proposals contain varying types of mandates on businesses of different sizes in attempts to recognize the potential impact on small businesses.
Jewish tradition speaks strongly to valuing workers dignity as well as maintaining healthy families. The Torah commands, The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning (Leviticus 19:13). Further we are instructed: You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it; else a cry to the Eternal will be issued against you and you will incur guilt (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). From these ancient principles our ancestors derived an ethical employment system that mandated fair and sensitive treatment toward laborers.
The Torah also urges us to protect our health, You shall indeed guard your souls (Deuteronomy 4:15), because our bodies and souls belong to God. Furthermore, the Rabbis taught, Whoever is in pain, lead him to the physician (Baba Kamma 46B).
Connecting these ideas together is a Jewish dictum teaching that employers and employees have a common interest in workers health and a mutual obligation to secure the wellness of labor force: A hired laborer must not starve himself or undergo privations, because he diminishes his value as a workman to his employer. Further: A workman is not allowed to work all night, and then hire himself out by day (because he has already been weakened by the night work). (Jerusalem Talmud, Demai VI 4, 26b) Our ancestors recognized that an overworked, undernourished and unhealthy worker cannot properly fulfill the requirements of his or her employment.
The Reform Movement has long championed economic and social justice for workers (Living Wage Campaigns, 1999, Workers Rights in the United States, 2005), women (Economic Justice for Women, 1983) and low-income families (Confronting and Combating Poverty in the United States, 2003) as well as commitment to healthcare for all (Reform of the Health Care System, 1993, Womens Health, 1993).
THEREFORE, THE COMMISSION ON SOCIAL ACTION OF REFORM JUDAISM RESOLVES TO:
Support legislation that requires employers to provide reasonable paid sick leave to employees to attend to their own health care and the health care of their families, in a manner sensitive to potential impacts on employers;
Urge our congregations across North America to engage in paid sick days campaigns in their local communities; and
Call upon our congregations and all arms of the Reform Movement to examine their employment and contracting practices reflecting the spirit of this resolution and set an example for their communities.