For many workers in the United States, taking time off for an extended illness or to care for a newborn means going unpaid, or cobbling together sick and vacation time to get a few weeks’ salary. Some workers do not even get paid time off when they are out with the flu.
But efforts to give employees paid time off are growing around the country, from federal bills to guarantee paid sick and family leave to proposals in the Massachusetts Legislature and the Boston City Council that would mandate paid parental leave.
Microsoft waded into the fray recently when it announced it would require its large suppliers to give 15 days of paid time off a year to employees who work directly with Microsoft. Last week, McDonald’s said it would give employees at its corporate-owned stores up to five days of paid leave a year.
Randy Albelda, a University of Massachusetts Boston economist who has been studying the issue for years, said the movement to address workers’ needs has been a long time coming, spurred by the country’s rising inequality.
“All these things help everybody, but they disproportionately affect workers at the bottom,” she said, noting that nearly every other industrialized country in the world gives workers some sort of paid parental leave. “This modernizes the US labor force.”
Nationwide, 87 percent of workers have no paid family leave and 39 percent have no paid sick days. Looking to increase those numbers, Obama administration officials last week kicked off a nationwide tour to meet with businesses, workers, and local officials to discuss the benefits of paid leave.
In Massachusetts, the movement is in full swing. Last year, voters approved a measure requiring companies with 11 or more employees to offer up to a week of paid sick time. The Boston City Council is considering giving nonunion city employees six weeks of paid parental leave, and a bill working its way through the Legislature would mandate up to 12 weeks of paid leave — based on a percentage of a worker’s income — to care for a new child or a sick family member, and up to 26 weeks for an employee’s own serious illness or injury.
“If you have a stroke or you get cancer . . . there’s nothing to deal with it,” said Deb Fastino, cochair of Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of community groups, religious organizations, and unions that was heavily involved in successful campaigns last year to raise the minimum wage and guarantee paid sick time.
“You shouldn’t have to work 30 or 40 years of your life and lose everything you ever worked for,” she said, noting that some people have to dip into their savings when they are unable to work.
Massachusetts is one of a dozen states considering paid family and medical leave this year. Only three offer it: California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey.
Studies show that paid leave improves children’s health and encourages men to take on more child-care duties, which encourages women to return to their careers and helps reduce workplace disparities. It also helps employers retain and attract talented workers.
But the cost can be substantial.
“It makes it more difficult to create jobs and grow your company, and there’s a trade-off economically,” said Bill Vernon, Massachusetts director for the National Federation of Independent Business. That is particularly true for small companies.
Many companies offer paid leave on their own, of course, and some are forcing others into compliance along with them. Microsoft’s move to require its subcontractors to give their employees paid sick and vacation time — as Microsoft itself does — comes at a time when a growing number of contract and temporary workers are paid by one company but perform work for another.
“In these subcontracting chains, the companies at the top have enormous power to control the terms of conditions of work for workers down the chain,” said Rebecca Smith, deputy director at the National Employment Law Project. “Microsoft should be congratulated, and other companies should follow suit, but we need a comprehensive set of policies in order to cover all the people who are working in the country without paid leave.”
Microsoft’s announcement will affect companies like Lionbridge Technologies Inc.
But Microsoft’s mandate may not be the boon for temporary workers that it appears to be. Lionbridge employees are concerned that their pay might be cut to offset the cost increases the company will face as a result of Microsoft’s policy. Lionbridge spokeswoman Sara Buda noted it “may have implications on how we adjust our proposals for future work with Microsoft.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the benefits that Lionbridge Technologies temporary workers get. These workers get health insurance through Lionbridge.Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow
her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.