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Millions in U.S. one serious illness away from losing their job

Millions in U.S. one serious illness away from losing their job
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
The United States trails most of the rest of the world when it comes to taking care of sick employees.

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid but job-protected time off for medical reasons. Yet millions of American workers continue to be at risk of losing their jobs should they or a child, spouse or parent become seriously ill for any length of time.

Workers such as Danielle Buchman, whom Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte featured on Sunday in an article marking FMLA’s anniversary:

Eight weeks before Danelle Buchman’s baby was due, an artery ruptured in her uterus, which nearly killed her and her child. Delivered by emergency C-section in 2010, her newborn daughter, Avery, spent one month in intensive care. Buchman survived only after an immediate hysterectomy. When she tried to return to a PR job she loved and had won rave performance reviews for at a Maryland nonprofit a few weeks later, Buchman’s employer first demoted her and cut her salary by a third. Then it fired her.

As Schulte points out, Buchman’s firing “was all perfectly legal.” That’s because Buchman was among the 40 percent of the U.S. labor force — 41.7 million American workers — not covered by FMLA. The law does not apply to businesses with fewer than 50 employees, or to part-time employees, or to people who have worked at a job less than a year or who have taken unpaid medical leave within the previous two years.

“In 2010, when Buchman was rushed to the hospital, each of the law’s limitations applied,” Schulte explains. “Buchman had had her first child just 14 months before Avery’s delivery and had worked part time for a little under a year for the Maryland affiliate of the nonprofit Susan G. Komen for the Cure.”

“I hit the roof. I said, ‘You’re an organization that cares about women’s health and I’ve been through the worst summer of my life,’ ” Buchman told Schulte. “They told me they’d talked to a lawyer. But I said, ‘That shouldn’t keep you from doing the right thing.’ ” (A spokesperson for Komen Maryland declined to comment on the case to the Post, stating that it was “inappropriate for us to discuss personnel issues publicly.”)

DOL: 'misuse is rare'

According to the results of a U.S. Department of Labor survey released last week, FMLA has been working well for employees and employers alike.

“Employers generally find it easy to comply with the law, and misuse of the FMLA by workers is rare,” the DOL noted in a statement that announced the survey results. “The vast majority of employers, 91 percent, report that complying with the FMLA has either no noticeable effect or a positive effect on business operations such as employee absenteeism, turnover and morale. Finally, 90 percent of workers return to their employer after FMLA leave, showing little risk to businesses that investment in a worker will be lost as a result of leave granted under the act."

But that hasn’t kept some business interests from continuing to contend that the law is too generous to employees and too burdensome to employers. A lobbying group with the Orwellian name the National Coalition to Protect Family Leave has been trying to rein in the law since its inception. One of their oft-repeated claims is that FMLA allows employees to take unpaid leave for “pink eye, ingrown toenails and colds.” 

Many labor and health officials argue, however, that FMLA needs to be expanded, not tightened. The United States trails most of the rest of the world when it comes to taking care of sick employees, they point out. Indeed, we’re the only industrialized country without mandatory paid sick leave. And we’re one of three countries (out of 177) that does not have mandatory paid parental leave. The other two: Papau New Guinea and Swaziland.

The need for mandatory paid sick leave

Last summer, the progressive think tank Center for American Progress published a list of key facts that underline why the United States needs mandatory paid sick leave. Here are a few of them:

  • 38 percent of private-sector workers lack even one paid sick day. This percentage is lower for full-time private-sector workers (25 percent), but it is significantly higher for part-time workers, with 73 percent lacking access.
  • Low-income workers are less likely to have access to paid sick days. [The average wage of workers without paid sick leave is $10 per hour.]
  • Women are less likely than men to have paid sick days. … This discrepancy becomes crucial when considering that 80 percent of mothers assume responsibility for their children’s doctor visits, meaning they are more likely to need time off work for a child’s illness than male workers.
  • Workers with access to paid sick days are more likely to utilize preventative health services such as cancer screenings and tests … [and] less likely to use costly hospital emergency rooms or delay treatment for themselves or a family member.
  • Many Americans risk their jobs to care for themselves and their families. Twenty-three percent of adults say they’ve been threatened with termination or fired for taking time off when they or a family member were sick.
  • Workers without paid sick leave are 1.5 times more likely to go to work sick and contagious than those who have paid sick days. … Seventy percent of women and 67 percent of men in the restaurant industry report cooking, preparing, or serving food while sick.
  • Workers who have paid sick days don’t abuse them. On average, workers who are covered take 3.9 days per year for illness and 1.3 days to care for sick family members, while workers without sick days take an average of 3 days per year.

“Most Americans are working hard to pay their bills and to take care of their families, yet too many employers make it impossible to juggle those work and family obligations,” the Center for American Progress notes in its introduction to the list. “The danger of losing a job or missing a promotion because of illness, pregnancy, or taking care of loved ones when working at companies focused solely on the bottom line leaves too many moms and dads having to choose between their jobs and their families.”

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Comments (2)

It shouldn't be necessary

…to point out that Ms. Buchman’s case exemplifies one of the primary reasons why labor unions were formed in the first place, and why their recent decline is largely with the approval of employers, not to mention at the cost of most of the American workforce.

I’ve no doubt that Buchman's employer operated within the letter of the law, and that, of course, is part of the problem. The “letter of the law” is generally written with significant input from Chambers of Commerce and/or industry lobbyists, and typically to the detriment of the employees it purports to cover in situations like this.

Buchman’s case also provides a nice example of one of the major flaws in the American system of health care. Only the wealthiest and best-connected manage to avoid some sort of penalty, usually undeserved, for a genuine illness. Since a genuine illness is something virtually every working person can look forward to, Buchman’s case simply provides an illustration of what can happen in a virtual eyeblink, and through no fault of the employee.

(It’s also one more reason to abandon the Komen Foundation and find other ways to support breast cancer research.)

I can’t help but wonder if the National Coalition to Protect Family Leave (“Orwellian” is certainly an apt descriptor for its name) has any data at all to support its implication that employees routinely take unpaid days off for “pink eye, ingrown toenails and colds.” That something is possible does not mean it actually takes place.

That we’re the only industrialized nation without mandatory paid sick leave for all employees, and join only those bastions of civilization, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland, in not providing mandatory paid parental leave, ought to be not just morally indefensible, but an ongoing embarrassment to not only every Chamber of Commerce, but to American diplomats and the President.

It shouldn't be necessary

…to point out that Ms. Buchman’s case exemplifies one of the primary reasons why labor unions were formed in the first place, and why their recent decline is largely with the approval of employers, not to mention at the cost of most of the American workforce.

I’ve no doubt that Buchman's employer operated within the letter of the law, and that, of course, is part of the problem. The “letter of the law” is generally written with significant input from Chambers of Commerce and/or industry lobbyists, and typically to the detriment of the employees it purports to cover in situations like this.

Buchman’s case also provides a nice example of one of the major flaws in the American system of health care. Only the wealthiest and best-connected manage to avoid some sort of penalty, usually undeserved, for a genuine illness. Since a genuine illness is something virtually every working person can look forward to, Buchman’s case simply provides an illustration of what can happen in a virtual eyeblink, and through no fault of the employee.

(It’s also one more reason to abandon the Komen Foundation and find other ways to support breast cancer research.)

I can’t help but wonder if the National Coalition to Protect Family Leave (“Orwellian” is certainly an apt descriptor for its name) has any data at all to support its implication that employees routinely take unpaid days off for “pink eye, ingrown toenails and colds.” That something is possible does not mean it actually takes place.

That we’re the only industrialized nation without mandatory paid sick leave for all employees, and join only those bastions of civilization, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland, in not providing mandatory paid parental leave, ought to be not just morally indefensible, but an ongoing embarrassment to not only every Chamber of Commerce, but to American diplomats and the President.