A job is good -- a good job is better

The conversation about employment these days is often a simple one: Do you have a job and, if you do, how do you keep it? If you don't, how do you get one? Lost in the desperation is an issue that persists in good and bad times: the quality of the workplace.

Jody Heymann and Alison Earle spent eight years researching working conditions around the world. They analyzed the relationship between labor conditions, national competitiveness and unemployment rates in 190 countries. The results are in their book "Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth That We Cant Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone" published in October by Stanford University Press.

The authors found that there is no relationship between unemployment rates and providing basic protections in many areas, including paid sick leave and paid parental leave. Also, the authors discovered, good working conditions can make countries more competitive.

Heymann is founding director of the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University. Earle is a principal research scientist at Northeastern University.


The United States is an outlier, there's no doubt. While 177 nations guarantee paid leave for new mothers, the United States does not. While 74 nations guarantee paid leave for new fathers, the United States does not. The list goes on.

Here are the numbers.

Nations that ensure breastfeeding breaks at work: 132.

Nations that provide paid sick leave: 163.

Nations that guarantee paid time off to care for children's health: 48.

Nations that provide leave that can be used for child education needs: 41

Nations that provide paid leave to care for adult family members: 33

The United States does not guarantee any of these benefits that would help working Americans and their families.

The cost to us is profound. Every year tens of millions of Americans lose income and some lose homes when they cannot work because of illnesses. Restaurant workers, health care providers and co-workers spread disease when they report to work sick because they cannot afford to stay home. When mothers have to choose working over breast-feeding, their infants are 1.5-5 times more likely to become sick. These are just a few of the consequences.

For decades, lawmakers have told groups like the National Partnership for Women & Families, which is in the trenches working to pass these measures, that it would cost the economy too much for this country's men and women, and the children and aging parents they care for, to receive these protections -- even though they would markedly benefit the nation's health and its families' financial stability.

The argument has been: if mothers and fathers were guaranteed paid leave to help them afford to care for their newborn children, we'd have fewer jobs. We'd be less competitive. If people with influenza stayed home with pay, it would cost companies too much and as a result, they'd cut jobs and then unemployment would rise.

Well, it turns out not to be true. We cannot blame our failure to provide opportunities for working adults to care for their own health and that of their families on an economic imperative.
Globally, none of the basic protections Alison Earle and I examined were linked to lower levels of economic competitiveness or employment. Of the world's 15 most competitive countries, 14 provide paid sick leave, 13 guarantee paid leave for new mothers, 12 provide paid leave for new fathers, 11 ensure paid leave to care for children's health needs, and 8 provide paid leave to care for adult family members. The countries with consistently low unemployment also provide the benefits and protections the United States does not.

The rapid spread of the H1N1 pandemic, fueled in part by people going to work sick when they have no leave, has brought new urgency to the question of sick leave. As a result, Congress is considering not just the Healthy Families Act, which offers a permanent solution, but also emergency legislation to guarantee workers paid sick days during the H1N1 pandemic.

Guaranteeing that working women and men here have paid sick days, not just this year but every year, would help the United States catch up with the rest of the world. So would passing the Family Leave Insurance Act, and legislation to require employers to give women reasonable breaks for breast-feeding.

Working families here pay a high price for the gaps in paid sick leave, paid parental leave, breastfeeding breaks, and other basic protections. These gaps have not made our economy any stronger but they have made our health much weaker.

By Steven E. Levingston |  December 7, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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