Sep 19, 2022 - Economy

Work-life policies are increasingly high-stakes economics

Animated illustration of scales with railroad crossing lights blinking

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Work-life policies like paid sick and medical leave, as well as reasonable hours and scheduling, are becoming a more high-stakes economic issue, as in-person workers exercise their increased leverage in a tight labor market — and cope with more than two years of working on the front lines of a pandemic.

Driving the news: A fight over paid sick leave and working conditions almost brought the country's economy to a standstill last week. Railway workers, who say they don't have easy access to paid sick time, were ready to strike if their employers wouldn't improve working conditions.

  • These issues make up the human side of the supply chain, which proved fragile in the crisis.
  • "These are human beings, you know, they're not machines," says Sharita Gruberg, a vice-president at the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Background: The railroad companies, in an effort to keep costs down and profits up, instituted a restrictive policy requiring employees to be on call more often, and penalizing them with a point-based system for taking unscheduled time off, the New York Times reported.

  • Rail workers didn't get any paid sick time, they said.
  • During the supply chain crisis, when business picked up, the harsh policies "pushed workers to the limits of their physical and mental health," per the NYT.
  • The tentative agreement reached last week gives railroad workers unpaid time off for medical care and illness, and sets a key precedent for the unions in bargaining for leave — something they hadn't done before.

Meanwhile: Workers in many fields are more willing to strike, demanding better pay and — crucially — improved conditions, the Wall Street Journal reports, noting that it reflects how the pandemic has reshaped jobs and attitudes about work.

  • In Minnesota last week, 15,000 nurses walked off the job over stalled contract negotiations. Nurses say they're burned out after three years of working in a pandemic.
  • Mental-health workers are on strike in California and Hawaii, and nursing home workers in Pennsylvania just wrapped up a strike last week, too, earning better pay and better nurse-to-patient ratios, the WSJ reports.

Zoom out: The U.S. doesn't require employers to provide paid time off for illness; in other well-off nations, it's commonplace.

Paid sick days for a 10-day illness in select countries
Data: CEPR; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios

While 94% of high-income workers in the U.S. have paid sick leave, only 53% of those in the lowest quartile of earners have access, according to 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • More than half of workers at the nation's largest retailers and fast-food chains said they don't have access to paid sick leave in a 2020 survey.
  • Efforts to pass paid leave at a national level failed during the pandemic, surprising advocates who believed COVID would push lawmakers to act.

Between the lines: 15 states and some cities do have sick leave policies in place.

  • But even when employers have sick leave on paper, it doesn't always translate in practice.
  • Workplace policies can be structured in such a way to make it nearly impossible for someone to just stay home from in-person work — onerous rules around doctor notes or finding someone to fill the shift can keep folks from calling out.
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