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Paid sick leave

According to the brilliant analysts at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, sixty-six million workers, or 54% of the workforce, does not get a single paid sick day after a full year on the job.

That statistic, I think, is one of the best indicators of the two classes of the labor market, and how the divide is not so much about wages and income as about benefits and security. And those of us on the relatively secure side of the divide cannot really understand how different life is in a world where you don't have any paid sick leave. I might think I understand what it is to earn low wages -- $10,500/year, in my first job -- but I've never had a job that didn't offer sick days. Can't even imagine it.

(I did work at a company once that had a clever policy: You could take as many sick days as you needed, but at the end of the year, if you had significantly more days than the average for the company as a whole, you had to talk about it with your supervisor, and perhaps there were some steps after that. That seemed fair, and it discouraged you from thinking of sick days as a use-it-or-lose-it allotment, like personal days.)

IWPR mostly talks about the lack of paid sick leave as a matter of income, health, and productivity, arguing in support of legislation to require paid sick leave. That argument is compelling, but I'd like to know something else about this number: How many of these 66 million are actually at significant risk of losing their jobs if they take one or more sick days?

Jacob Hacker has a sort of preview of his next book in The New Republic, and I think he is most clearly saying the big thing that needs to be said about the economy: That the principal problem, the big thing that has changed, is not the number of jobs, the rate of growth, or income inequality. It's the shift in risk from the government and corporations onto individuals. We are all experiencing this risk-shifting -- our savings are in stocks and mutual funds, not certificates of deposit, our pensions are 401(k)s, not defined-benefit plans -- but while some of us have been able to exchange the security of the past for greater economic opportunity, a majority of workers are absorbing more risk without accompanying reward. The paid-sick-leave numbers are just one indicator of this phenomenon.

I'm convinced that if Kerry and other candidates begin to hit the language that Hacker sets out for them, they will be met with the same "he really gets it" phenomenon that helped elect Clinton in 1992.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on August 9, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Jacob Hacker's piece is the best I have read in TNR for a long time. He is definitely onto something important. Certainly the economic and political science models that try to predict presidential elections from economic conditions are not tapping into the right measure when they look at change in GDP and similar easy-to-get quantities that voters do not necessarily "feel." More importantly, his discussion of income insecurity and dynamics is on-target. Conservatives have long interpreted mobility data to argue that upward mobility is common in the US and that happens because markets reward risk-takers; surely some level of American belief in this idea allows voters to vote "as if they were rich", so that we can actually get tax cuts for the rich a la 2001/2. Liberals have read the same figures to show the overall predominance of income quintile stability - the rich largely stay rich, the poor stay poor, and hence the need for public policy to ameliorate that. But, Hacker is right to emphasize not only the possibility, but the reality of downward mobility, which comes with more costs than upward mobility has plusses. So, univeral income insurance, or other policies, to insure against at least some of the negative consequences that come with downward mobility is a great idea, even if one not likely to be on the real agenda for the foreseeable future.

Posted by: paul teske | Aug 9, 2004 8:12:09 PM

Daniel Davies of Crooked Timber has been on this for quite a while now. Highly recommended.
In view of this, the poor real income growth is especially disturbing.

Posted by: theCoach | Aug 11, 2004 10:16:13 AM

I just posted this on Kevin Drum's site, but I doubt anyone there is listening anymore. Anyway, it seems to me like this increase in risk is no accident. Rather, conservatives have actively sought to bring this about by design.

See, for instance, David Frum in his book Dead Right. One of his theses is explicitly that we need to revive the threat of risk in the lives of every individual - a risk that can ruin you if you take one step off the straight and narrow. That's because, to conservatives such as Frum, our most important priority should not be to make people's lives better but rather, to ensure that they behave in way that those conservatives would define as "virtuous" - i.e., keeping their heads down, accepting their lot in life, and being too afraid to rock the boat.

In Frum's own words: "The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won’t try to vault across the big top. Social security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do not."

Posted by: JP | Aug 11, 2004 7:29:52 PM

Well, I guess I should have read to the end of the Hacker article first. He covers that at length. Oh well.

Posted by: JP | Aug 11, 2004 7:50:20 PM

The article doesn't mention the shift in risk that plagues my profession. Capitated payments for medical care as provided by HMOs shift risk from large insurance companies to small medical groups. This has forced medical groups to agglomerate into gigantic groups and has greatly reduced choice. In California where HMOs make up the majority of medical insurance plans, 50% of medical groups have folded in the last 10-15 years. Insurance companies no longer provide insurance, they merely package patients into groups and pass them off to the lowest bidder for care.

Posted by: J Bean | Aug 18, 2004 12:11:40 AM

My so-called career has ranged from carpenter (always in non-union areas), short order cook (construction slowed down in winters), social worker (for the state of Oregon twice and several nonprofits) and as an apartment manager.

Only at one nonprofit was there a health plan to buy into, but I had to get a physical to qualify for that. At $7/hr (1990) and paying $372 in child support, I couldn't afford it. Working for four property management firms and two private owners, only one offerred health care. Three of the four firms offerred sick days, after six months or after a year.

Of six carpentry contractors, six in the property management field, three nonprofits and three restaurants, 18 employers in all, and only two offerred health care, and four had paid sick days. The two stints in state service provided all these benefits, but those ended 21 years ago (I'm 51).

20 employers in 33 years. I was laid off from 11, quit 6 to pursue slightly better pay, was fired once because my hair was too long (though no one said so beforehand), was fired once for an error made when I was on my back with the flu, and once because I slacked off and deserved it.

That's the blue-collar world as I know it, I don't know if I would have done better had I gotten my degree (I had 3 years accrued over a 16 year period and a 3.61 GPA), but I had a family to support and couldn't afford to continue. And I don't really view myself as 'the norm,' that the government should provide fixes for. I squandered the opportunity to continue in state service in my twenties, for example.

Yet I certainly believe Kerry and most Democratic candidates have missed the boat on a populist message that'd resonate with 40% of the workforce, at least. Because they at least support a safety net, they maintain the support of women and minorities, but if they focused on employment plans, fair wages and benefits MORE than the safety net, the popular support would broaden.

Trickle down theories have never held up under scrutiny. Tax cuts rarely reach us renters without corresponding increases in the cost of living. Minimum wage boosts trickle up and the better-designed jobs training programs have provided increased opportunities. But the secondary education costs have soared to the point that the debt burdens to complete are obscene.

Kerry's offering a minimum wage boost that's too little and too slow. His health care plan would help tens of millions, but not me. Increased worker protections, jobs programs and more college or vocational GRANTS would certainly prove popular and the economy would gain back its investment in the working force.

Applying for jobs now, I don't even worry about sick days. A decent wage, health care and any edge anywhere to advance that wage is all I ask for. But I haven't seen even that much in a job 20 years.

Some view government aid as socialism unless it's corporate aid. I view them as rungs on a ladder but there's too many rungs missing to get far from the ground.

Posted by: Kevin Hayden | Aug 27, 2004 6:18:54 PM

interestingly, hacker's 'universal insurance', altho more comprehensive, was also similarly proposed by brookings a few years ago as 'wage insurance', in "A Prescription to Relieve Worker Anxiety" :D

it might also be noted that esteemed libertarians milton friedman and friedrich hayek have both proposed similar measures -- a 'negative income tax' and 'guaranteed minimum income', respectively.

cheers!

Posted by: | Sep 18, 2004 1:14:42 AM

u shood put more intersting and helpfull information on ur page! its boring!

Posted by: whatever | Sep 11, 2005 6:00:33 AM

Paid sick leave must be offered to the employees.Well, its up to the company if they'll offer it..

Posted by: Juno888 | May 15, 2007 2:31:49 AM