The Shriver Report – Working Women Need Good Health Coverage and Paid Sick Time
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Working Women Need Good Health Coverage and Paid Sick Time

This month, millions of previously uninsured women across the country are finally gaining desperately-needed health coverage under the Affordable Care Act.  New health insurance marketplaces are offering more affordable coverage and financial aid for those who qualify.  Women can no longer be charged more than men for the same health policy, or denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition like breast cancer or having been a victim of domestic violence.  Maternity care, often missing from health plans, now must be covered.

But some of our country’s newly-insured women may have trouble actually using their health coverage to seek urgent care, get a mammogram or take a sick child to the doctor. That’s because they work for employers that offer no paid sick time, and risk losing their jobs if they are ill and can’t come to work.

Shockingly, an estimated 42 million American workers have no paid sick days, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  There are no federal requirements for paid sick leave, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

More than 70 percent of low­wage workers receive no paid sick days.
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In New York City, a 2012 study by the Community Service Society estimated that half of working New Yorkers, and 70 percent of low-income working mothers, had no paid sick leave.

“Low-income working moms – often the ones to care for sick kids – low-income Latinos and immigrants are most likely to lack paid sick time,” the study concluded. Women make 80 percent of the health care decisions for families, and are more likely to be caregivers for children and elderly relatives, studies have shown.

“Working mothers who are struggling to make ends meet should not be forced to face the unthinkable task of having to choose between their health and the health of their children or risk losing their job and family income,” said New York City Councilmember Julissa  Ferreras of Queens.

” Women make 80 percent of the health care decisions for families, and are more likely to be caregivers for children and elderly relatives, studies have shown.”

This year, at least some New York City workers will finally get paid sick days under a new law that goes into effect on April 1.  The NYC Earned Sick Time Act guarantees that New Yorkers employed by private businesses with 20 or more employees can earn and use up to 40 hours of paid sick time for personal illness or to care for a sick family member. Next year, the law applies to businesses with 15 or fewer workers. Eventually, as many as 1 million workers will be covered by the policy. The measure also allows workers at smaller businesses to take unpaid sick time and protects them from being fired for doing so.

Last week, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito stepped forward to say the new law doesn’t go far enough. They announced plans to introduce their own legislation that would provide paid sick leave to even more workers. Their proposed bill would lower the employer size threshold to cover businesses that employ five or more people, and would guarantee employees of even smaller businesses the right to use up to five unpaid sick days. Moreover, it would expand the definition of “family” in the law to include grandparents, grandchildren and siblings. It also would empower the city to enforce the law by initiating investigations, according to A Better Balance, a non-profit that advances the rights of working families and has played a leadership role in advocating for the new city policy.

The New York City Paid Sick Days Coalition that won passage of the law enacted last year (and is now embracing the new mayor’s proposal) includes women’s organizations, labor unions, immigrant groups and public health professionals.

Portland, OR, and Jersey City, NJ, also passed new paid sick laws in 2013, as did the Connecticut Legislature, making that the first state in the nation to adopt such a measure.  San Francisco enacted the first paid sick days law back in 2006. Similar measures have been proposed in 20 other states and cities across the U.S. according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

As 2014 gets underway, we can celebrate the ways the Affordable Care Act is providing health coverage for millions more previously-uninsured women and our families. Having good, affordable health insurance will be an enormous help to women, who use more health services than men do, in part because of our need for reproductive health care.

But, we can’t stop there.  We must make sure working women have paid sick leave they can use to go to the doctor, get mammograms and Pap smears, and take care of our children when they are ill.

Lois Uttley is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Lois Uttley, MPP, is co-founder of Raising Women’s Voices for the Health Care We Need, a national initiative working to ensure implementation of the Affordable Care Act meets the needs of diverse women and families. She is Past President of the Public Health Association of NYC.
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