Workers shouldn’t have to choose between earning a paycheck and getting medical care, or caring for a newborn child. That’s the essence of labor’s support for legislation that would expand access to earned sick time and paid family leave among Minnesota workers.
But officials with the Minnesota Department of Health today offered another reason for expanding paid leave: a healthier Minnesota.
“Paid sick and family leave is an economic issue, but it is also a public health issue,” MDH Commissioner Edward Ehlinger said at a Capitol press conference, where the department issued a white paper touting the public health benefits of public policies that expand access to sick and family leave.
DFL lawmakers have included such measures in their proposed Working Parents Act, which would mandate the state’s employers offer workers, at minimum, one hour of sick time for every 30 hours on the clock. The bill would also create an insurance program to increase the availability of paid family leave.
Four of 10 workers in Minnesota do not have access to even one paid sick day, according to an analysis released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research last fall. Just 13 percent of Minnesotans enjoy paid family leave.
Earned sick time and family leave fall even more out of reach for Minnesota’s low-income and part-time workers. The MDH found “significant inequities” that create a “cascading effect on families and entire communities, including children, the elderly and people with disabilities.”
Peggy Flanagan, director of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota, said the report shows communities of color and the state’s American Indian population are hardest hit.
Parents in these communities, already struggling with cyclical poverty, are less likely to take time off to care for a newborn and more likely to send a sick child to school. That creates “an even steeper ladder to success later in life,” Flanagan said.
It also makes other people sick – another point driven home by the MDH paper.
Minnesotans who lack sick-time benefits often work in jobs that require contact with the public, like food service and health care. The MDH linked at least 208 outbreaks of foodborne illness between 2004 and 2013 to people working while sick, and it attributed 579 disease outbreaks from 2004 to 2011 to “person-to-person transmission in public settings.”
“People who are sick belong home in bed, not in the workplace,” Linda Hamilton, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said.
What’s more, workers with access to paid sick leave are more likely to get preventative health care, recover from illnesses faster and reduce the spread of disease. That boosts workers’ productivity in the long-run, Eden Prairie small business owner Verne Severson said.
“I need my employees to be at their best, and employees are at their best when they stay home when sick and they take care of their families,” he said.
Unfortunately, not all employers take the long view, as Minneapolis resident Octancia Adams knows too well.
Commissioner Ehlinger, state lawmakers and others at the press conference listened as Adams recalled being pregnant with her second child eight years ago, when she was working at McDonald’s. The job did not offer paid-sick benefits or paid family leave, and Adams faced a difficult decision when told she would need four to six weeks of rest to recover from a cesarean-section delivery.
“I had a choice between returning to work and losing my job,” she said.
Adams chose her job, returning after only 10 days. She’s been paying the price ever since. Adams continues to suffer from a herniated disc and scar tissue that could hemorrhage if she has another child.
“I feel pain every time I ovulate,” she said. “I go back to the doctor, and they tell me there’s nothing more they can do for me.”
Lawmakers can do something to create better options for working mothers, Adams said, so they don’t face the impossible choice she faced eight years ago.
“It shouldn’t be a ‘nice-to-have,’” Flanagan said of paid family leave and earned-sick time. “It should be a must-have.”