Each year 2.7 million federal workers are guaranteed 13 days of paid sick time. Many state employees are guaranteed the same or even more. Federal law, however, does not require any employer, public or private, to provide paid sick leave. It mandates only that employers of 50 or more workers – who employ approximately 60 percent of the labor force – grant up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for illness. (Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993).

Other nations appear to value their work force more highly: 139 nations guarantee paid sick leave; 117 of them guarantee at least one full week.

In the United States, however, 59 million workers are without paid sick leave. Forty-seven percent of private sector workers have no paid sick days. This disturbing information is contained in the report, “Get Well Soon: Americans Can’t Afford to be Sick,” just issued by the National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit advocacy group. A National Partnership lawyer drafted the FMLA of ’93 and the same group led the decade-long fight to obtain its passage.

The new report estimates that workers need about a week of sick time each year for themselves. They also need additional days to care for others who are sick. Presently, 86 million workers, both public and private, have no paid time to care for sick family members.

Children between ages 5 and 18 miss more than three days of school each year, on average, because of illness. Yet in more than three-quarters of all families, both parents work and taking time off is problematic. More than a third (35 percent) of workers had eldercare responsibilities. Many workers thus find themselves obliged to reduce their working hours or take unpaid time off to fulfill family commitments.

A Harvard study indicates that more than three-quarters of low-wage workers have no paid sick leave. Families USA, a Washington-based consumer group, recently issued a report indicating that fully 41 million people were without medical coverage for at least nine months during 2002 and 2003. Many of these are the very workers who find themselves without paid sick leave; as such, they are doubly penalized. Another study cited by the National Partnership indicates that 41 percent of workers with incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level have no paid leave of any kind at all: no sick leave, no vacation, no personal days off.

The National Partnership report was released at a Washington press conference in mid-June simultaneously with the Healthy Families Act, legislation co-sponsored by Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the Senate and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) in the House. The act would guarantee seven days paid sick leave for all full-time employees and a pro-rated amount for part-time employees. All public and private sector employers with 15 or more employees would be covered.