A Hundred and Two and What Do You Do?

More than a dozen years ago, the nonprofit MotherWoman got off to a deceptively modest start, with a drop-in support group for mothers in Amherst.

Annette Cycon, who founded the organization with a friend, told the Advocate a couple of years ago that they started the group to offer a safe, supportive setting in which to help women address the isolation and self-criticism that’s too often a part of new parenthood. “Like everyone else, parenting really brought us to our knees,” Cycon said.

That effort soon mushroomed; today, MotherWoman facilitates mothers’ groups in all four western counties, some open to the general public and others for specific communities (including one for incarcerated moms at the women’s correctional center in Chicopee). The organization also trains volunteers interested in facilitating new groups, and works with health-care professionals to help them recognize and address postpartum depression and other mood disorders in new moms.

MotherWoman has also added a political action arm, affiliated with the national group MomsRising, that advocates for policy changes to improve the lot of women and families.

“We really believe that if we’re not addressing the ways in which the social system is not serving mothers and families, we’re really just putting a band-aid on the needs,” Beth Spong, MotherWoman’s executive director, recently said. “There are some really concrete, systemic challenges in our country, so we are passionate about addressing those policy issues whenever we can.”

On Oct. 28, MotherWoman will hold its annual breakfast (see sidebar for details), an event that traditionally celebrates the group and its allies and also focuses attention on hot items on its advocacy agenda. This year, that will include a focus on an issue that affects not just mothers, but all working people in Massachusetts: the lack of legally guaranteed sick days.

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Massachusetts lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would change that. Two identical bills—introduced in the House by Rep. Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat, and in the Senate by Sen. Patricia Jehlen, a Democrat from Somerville—would allow workers to earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work, up to seven days a year. Right now, according to backers, 1.5 million workers in the commonwealth don’t receive paid sick days.

Khan’s and Jehlen’s bills say that almost half of private-sector workers don’t receive paid sick days; for low-income workers, that figure rises to 76 percent.

Under the proposed law, employees could use the days when they’re sick or injured, or to attend regular medical appointments. Victims of domestic abuse could take time off from work “to address the psychological, physical or legal effects” of that abuse.

And—in a provision that makes the bill especially appealing to groups like MotherWoman—employees could also use the time off to care for a sick child, spouse or parent. (Right now, according to the bill, only 20 percent of workers who do get sick days can use them to care for a family member.) The law would apply to both public and private employers; workplaces that already offer more generous sick day policies would not be affected.

The bills’ sponsors include, from the Valley, Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst), president pro tempore of the Senate, and Reps. Brian Ashe (D-Longmeadow), Sean Curran (D-Springfield), Peter Kocot (D-Northampton), and Ellen Story (D-Amherst), as well as Cheryl Coakley-Rivera (D-Springfield), House chair of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.

In July, that committee held a hearing on the bills; supporters rallied under the leadership of the Mass. Paid Leave Coalition, a group that includes MomsRising as well as organized labor, faith and community groups. This is the fourth time a sick days bill has been filed in recent years; during the last legislative session, the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development gave the bill a favorable report. From there, though, it died in the Ways and Means Committee, never coming to a full vote of the Legislature.

The bills have received strong backing from a key member of the Patrick administration: Joanne Goldstein, Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, has called paid sick days a “basic right” that shouldn’t be left to the discretion of individual employers.

In a Statehouse briefing last spring, Goldstein suggested that business leaders opposing the bill likely already get paid sick days from their employers. “To me there’s some disconnect in fighting against something that you yourself enjoy and take advantage of,” she said. “I would challenge all of you to find some folks who would say, ‘We think this is such a bad idea … we’re willing to forego it [for ourselves].’

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Goldstein’s strong comments, predictably, rankled the bill’s opponents in the business sector.

The Associated Industries of Massachusetts has steadfastly opposed efforts to require employers to offer paid sick days. Prior to the July hearing, AIM urged its members to contact their legislators to voice their opposition. In a public statement the day of the hearing, AIM said its members “fear that a proposal to mandate paid sick leave will crush their ability to create jobs” and therefore “oppose the mandatory nature of the legislation and believe that decisions regarding any employee benefit provided to employees are best left to the discretion of the individual employer.”

The Massachusetts chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses also spoke out in opposition at the legislative hearing, calling the bill “anti-business” and an unwarranted government intrusion into the right of businesses to decide what benefits to offer.

This summer, Connecticut legislators passed a sick leave bill that guarantees workers up to five paid sick days a year. While backers of the Massachusetts bill hope that victory in a neighboring state will provide some momentum for the effort here, it’s notable that the Connecticut law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, includes some significant limitations: it applies to service workers only, does not apply to temps and day laborers, and exempts manufacturers and nonprofits.

For the Massachusetts bill to succeed, it seems likely that backers will have to agree to some concessions as well. “The fact that the economy is still really struggling is an important factor, and it makes it difficult for legislators to make decisions that may be perceived as being unfriendly to business, or small business,” Spong said. “I think there’s pressure in that direction, so we’re doing what we can. We’re fully prepared to do the full court press during this legislative session and to come back again if we need to.”

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The irony, supporters of the bill contend, is that the proposal would actually save money for both businesses and the state.

Mass. Paid Leave Coalition Director Elizabeth Toulan—who will speak at the Oct. 28 MotherWoman breakfast—outlined the ways a lack of paid sick days costs everyone: employees who are sick, or worried about the sick kid they’ve guiltily dropped at daycare that morning, are less productive; they’re also likely to create a chain reaction of lowered productivity by getting their coworkers sick. People who postpone routine medical care because they can’t get time off from work are more likely to end up making a costly visit to the emergency room when their problems become more serious. Companies that fire employees for taking unsanctioned sick days have to pay the costs of hiring and training new workers.

The Mass. Paid Leave Coalition counts among its members some business owners who recognize the value of providing this benefit, Toulan said. “They want to be able to treat their workers well because they want their workers to be loyal,” she said. “They don’t want workers showing up on the job sick, or preoccupied by a sick child or a sick elder, because they won’t be able to do the job.”

According to a 2009 report by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the bill would save Massachusetts employers $348 million a year by improving worker productivity and reducing turnover. And that’s not counting the public health savings when sick people are allowed to stay home until they’re better, instead of spreading their germs at workplaces and schools. The same report—released, notably, the year of the H1N1 outbreak—found that guaranteed sick days would prevent 33,000 flu infections on the job, saving workers $16 million in medical costs and lost wages.

“Public health is jeopardized as many workers who do not have paid sick days have the most frequent contact with the public, such as workers in food services, nursing homes, child care centers, and retail clerks,” according to the bill. “The spread of contagious diseases such as the flu cannot be stopped without a universally adopted paid sick days policy.”

“Having sick workers on the job is presenteeism,” Toulan said. “It’s a public health issue, and it’s a productivity issue.”

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The lack of paid sick leave is also a women’s issue, say proponents of the bill.

“Women continue to earn less than men, continue to be in lower-wage jobs that don’t provide this benefit, yet they continue to be the primary caretaker for children,” Toulan said. “If they can’t balance those [work and family demands], our families start to unravel.”

As part of its effort in support of the bills, MotherWoman has collected stories from women about the stress of having to decide whether to go to work ill, send a sick child to school, or risk losing their jobs.

“Mothers and parents are in kind of a double-bind, because most two-parent families require two incomes,” Spong said. Add to that the other pressures on parents—the high cost of healthcare; the lack of affordable, quality daycare; the paycheck inequities that find women still earning less than men; the absence of guaranteed paid maternity leave—and it’s no wonder that so many families are struggling.

“There are so many holes in the system,” Spong said. “What’s clear to MotherWoman, and really fuels a lot of our work, is the fundamental belief that when mothers are respected and valued and cared for, families and communities thrive.”

Author: Maureen Turner

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