Acting on an executive order introduced by President Barack Obama last year, the Department of Labor issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking recently, outlining a strategy to secure paid leave for an estimated 828,000 federal contract workers, more than half of whom currently receive no paid sick days at all.

Though the proposed plan must undergo a period of public scrutiny before it is finalized, the measure requires federal contractors to allow their employees to earn, at a minimum, up to seven paid sick days per year. The ability to earn paid sick leave would provide a measure of economic security to these workers by offering them a means by which to care for themselves or a loved one without fear of losing their paychecks, or worse, their jobs.

Announcing the proposed rule, Labor Secretary Tom Perez lauded the benefits of paid sick leave to the health and well-being of families and individuals, as well as to the economy. “When parents can’t stay home and are forced to put a sick child on a school bus, they endanger the health of their child and other children. When people go into work sick, they risk infecting their coworkers and customers,” said Perez. “The lost wages from staying home sick means less money in workers’ pockets to spend on basic necessities, hurting local businesses that depend on their spending.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 44 million American workers don’t receive paid leave of any kind from their employers. More than one-third of women working for companies with more than 15 employees do not have access to even one paid sick day, and low-wage workers, the majority of whom are women, are even less likely to have paid sick days.

The proposed rule would guarantee that workers on federal contracts could use their paid sick days to care for themselves, a family member, or another loved one. In addition, workers could use paid leave for absences related to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

Although the proposed rule is an important step in the right direction, it will only apply to federal contractors. Congress must still act to help provide paid sick days for millions more. The Healthy Families Act, introduced by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), would require certain employers with more than 15 employees to allow their workers to earn up to 7 paid sick days per year. Employers with 15 employees or less could opt out of paid leave, but would still be required to provide at least 7 days of unpaid sick leave to their employees.

In the absence of Congressional action, some state and local governments have enacted their own paid leave laws. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, as of February 2016, five states – Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Vermont – have statewide laws allowing for paid sick days. Twenty-two cities and towns have also passed local paid leave laws, including eleven local jurisdictions in New Jersey.

The proposed new DOL rule will complement these local efforts until Congress passes legislation to expand access to earned paid sick days for the millions of workers who must choose between caring for themselves or their loved ones and their paychecks.

Media Resources: United States Department of Labor 2/24/16, 7/27/15; Huffington Post 2/24/16; National Partnership for Women and Families; Congress.gov

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