Is paid sick leave for federal contractors a gateway drug for everyone?

An Obama Administration order earlier this year — one of a string that’s in the spirit of give no fucks Obama — mandated that federal contractors provide a minimum of seven days paid sick leave annually for their employees, with employees accruing leave at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked, and being able to roll leave over from year to year. The move reflects other government pushes to force federal contractors to make labour reforms if they want to continue landing lucrative contracts, and it’s also a smart policy move. By leading with these examples, the government can advance better labour policy for the nation as a whole, with the eventual goal of reforms that will bring us into alignment with the rest of the West.

In the civilian sector, paid sick leave still isn’t available for nearly half of workers, and it has big implications, especially for low-wage workers. People who cannot afford to take time off because of the risk of missed wages — or for fear of penalties — come to work sick, and that contributes to declines in efficiency. Sick workers can’t function as well, but they also spread illness through the workplace. The United States already has an absurdly low level of efficiency when contrasted with number of hours worked, and forcing people to work sick is one reason why.

The policy delves into a number of specifics — one particularly interesting segment mandates leave for rape victims/survivors and people dealing with domestic violence when they need time off for situations other than when they require immediate medical attention. Thus, for example, a domestic violence survivor who doesn’t need medical treatment can still get paid leave to receive counseling and assistance. Additionally, people experiencing stalking are also covered, allowing them to take paid time to seek restraining orders and other support.

In an ideal world, this would be an act of Congress, not an executive order, thereby making it difficult to reverse. But it’s still an extremely positive sign, reinforcing the push for paid sick leave that has been a significant component of the administration’s efforts this year. The president has repeatedly stated that he wants to see better benefits for all workers in the US, including paid sick leave, which is becoming a subject of escalating interest alongside the minimum wage. Base wages in the United States should be much higher in the interest of fairness and equality, and any employee, anywhere, should be able to take time off when ill or in need of certain services without worrying about lost pay.

Jobs at federal contractors already come with certain workplace protections and benefits not available to the general public as a result of executive orders and other government mandates. This is an addition to existing benefits — except where firms already have paid leave policies that meet the standard — and it provides a model for what should be a national standard. By implementing it, contractors may be able to demonstrate that it’s economically efficient and feasible for employees across the country, as the common counterargument to calls for paid sick leave is that it’s not practical.

In fact, offering paid leave creates a net savings to employers along with other benefits. Healthier employees are happier and more efficient, and the ability to focus on their jobs and take leave when they need to ensures that personnel can stay committed and happy in their positions. For people occupying more seniority, this is particularly important, as it can be costly to replace an employee who moves on to a new job with better benefits or a more pleasant working environment. Contractors may be forced to provide it, but other employers would be wise to do so even without the incentive of losing lucrative federal contracts if they don’t.

Progress for workers in the United States is very slow. For every two steps forward, sometimes it seems like workers take one step back, and most gains occur on a small, regional scale — employees here manage to unionise, a single city passes a better minimum wage ordinance, people succeed in lobbying a company to offer better benefits, a city mandates health care benefits for employees. Sweeping federal policy of this nature is important, as it signals bigger shifts in US culture and opens the prospect of better working conditions for all. While Congress may not have mandated this change, hopefully it will serve as an inspiration for a functional law mandating paid sick leave along with other policy changes — the Department of Labour under the directive of the administration is already evaluating issues of concern to US workers, and this should definitely be one of them.

When it comes to social progress, welfare, and benefits, the US lags considerably far behind our fellows, an issue we should be deeply ashamed of. In fact, while the nation likes to position itself as the foremost power in the world, that power is primarily military — socially, we are regressive, offering fewer benefits and protections to our residents than the EU, Australia, and a fair amount of the Global South as well. The same countries we sneer at are doing more for their citizens than we are, and paid sick leave is a pretty basic issue that shouldn’t be so difficult to provide.

For employees at federal contractors, this small piece of the puzzle will mean that things get just a little bit better, and it will provide a pilot project for exploring the expansion of benefits in other workplace settings.

Image: Heather, Jose Oller, Flickr