As I celebrated my freedom on Independence Day, I found myself considering the promise that my country boasts about: "liberty and justice for all." In particular I was struck by the many freedoms uniquely absent from the lives of so many American workers. As Americans, we are proud of the freedoms we have protected by law, but sadly, "the land of the free" is one of the few countries in the world that has no federal law guaranteeing workers a weekly day of rest, paid maternity leave, paid sick leave, or annual paid leave in general.
This means that millions of U.S. workers must choose between getting paid and recovering from illness, or between getting paid and taking care of a sick or newborn child. And unsurprisingly, it is low-wage workers who most often lack such benefits and can least afford losing a day's pay (not to mention their jobs) for missing work due to illness. This prohibitive cost constrains our freedom to be healthy and humanly present in our families.
This freedom is hardly a luxury, and workers who are there day-in and day-out have surely earned their right to it. However, due to the weaker bargaining position of low-wage workers, their terms of employment often preclude them from participating fairly in their prosperity. With the United States commanding the strongest GDP the world has ever witnessed, there is simply no good reason that nearly 40 percent of private sector workers should be forced to take unpaid sick leave. (Especially given the costs imposed on public health and incurred by businesses from employees who come to work sick).
The Healthy Families Act would establish a national standard for paid sick leave. There are also numerous state and city initiatives worth checking out as well. San Francisco became the first city in the United States to enact a paid sick day ordinance in 2007, and it has proven a great success, with businesses showing great vitality and support for the bill. Washington, D.C. followed suit in 2008. Milwaukee and Philadelphia both recently passed measures with strong public support that were shot down by the state legislature and mayoral veto, respectively. But the fight continues there and elsewhere: Just this past June, Connecticut became the first state to mandate paid sick days, and there is real momentum gathering for a bill in New York City, as well as in Massachusetts, with a state legislative hearing set for July 14.
I am hopeful that these and other local efforts will continue to grow into a national movement that forces our economic relationships to respect the limits of human persons and human communities, an imperative as old and central to biblical faith as sabbath rest for all.
Paul Drake is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts and is currently an executive member of the Massachusetts Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice. He is also an active member of the Boston Faith & Justice Network and Massachusetts Not-for-Sale. He resides in Beverly, Massachusetts, ministers at The Gathering in Salem, Massachusetts, and rants about faith & society on his blog.