As Demands on Workers Grow, Groups Push for Paid Family and Sick Leave


Published: March 6, 2005

Tanya Frazier, the office manager of a 50-person payroll management company in Burbank, Calif., received a call last September from the elementary school her daughter attends, telling her to pick up her flu-stricken 9-year-old.

J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times

Tanya Frazier and her daughter, Vanessa.

But when she stayed home from work the next day to care for her daughter, she was fired.

Just why is a matter of dispute. Ms. Frazier said she was shocked, because she had missed work only a handful of days that year. Her boss, Jerry Schwartz, said in an interview that he was tired of her taking so many days off.

Now Ms. Frazier's case and others like it are being used by a Seattle-based coalition known as Take Back Your Time and various advocacy groups to argue for more paid time off for American workers. Saying that too many workers feel overstressed by demands on their time, the groups are calling for a broad shift in attitudes that would allow Americans to devote more time to their families, to spirituality and to their communities.

Take Back Your Time and its allies are seeking legislation in 21 states to give workers paid sick days or paid family leave to take care of infants or seriously ill family members. In Washington State recently, the group earned a preliminary victory when committees in the House and Senate passed a bill calling for five weeks' paid family leave for workers, which would be financed by having workers pay a tax of two cents per hour worked, about $40 a year.

Take Back Your Time is optimistic about a victory in Washington State, but it is less confident about winning on paid family leave in many other states. If the group makes progress in several states, its leaders say they plan to begin pushing state legislatures to guarantee workers three weeks of paid vacation each year.

Women's groups are also promoting paid family leave and paid sick time. Spurred by the National Partnership for Women and Families and by 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women, several dozen Democratic members of Congress are planning to introduce a bill this month that would guarantee workers seven paid days off each year for when they or their children are ill.

"A lot of people are shocked when they hear that almost half the work force doesn't have paid sick days," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. "There's something about paid sick leave that's almost as American as baseball and apple pie."

The groups argue that these are rare issues that can unite liberals and conservatives: those on the left interested in better working conditions and those on the right who want to promote family values.

"These are issues that cross party lines," said John de Graaf, national coordinator of Take Back Your Time, a left-leaning coalition of public health specialists, family and women's groups, environmentalists, union members and church groups. "There's a lot of potential Republican interest. This is completely about family values. People need time to have strong marriages, strong families and strong communities. When people don't have enough time, families can break down."

Liberals and conservatives are finding that they share common ground when it comes to changing attitudes on issues like having parents spend more time with their children. But for liberals, earning conservatives' support for legislation mandating vacations or paid sick days is not easy, making the battle in Congress and in many states an uphill struggle. Conservatives' corporate allies generally oppose such proposals. "Our members are decidedly against mandates from the federal government," said Patrick Lyden, a lobbyist with the National Federation of Independent Business.

Catherine H. Myers, executive director of the Family and Home Network, based in Virginia, said a preferable solution, instead of enacting mandates, would be for parents to quit or to reduce their paid employment to spend more time caring for their children. "When we consider what our children really need, how can we afford not to give them our time?" Ms. Myers said.

The Bush administration and many conservatives favor a different approach to helping overstretched workers: a bill on comp time that has failed in the past two sessions of Congress. Under current law, most employees who work more than 40 hours a week must be paid time and a half, but under the proposal, an employee who works more than 40 hours in one week could choose between overtime and comp time.

Many Democrats and labor unions oppose the bill, saying that it would cut workers' wages by pressuring them to give up paid overtime and that it would give managers too much control over when employees take comp time.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American workers put in 1,792 hours on average in 2003 - three full-time weeks more than British workers and nine weeks more than French and German workers.

United States Census data point to increased stress on women. The average middle-class married woman works 500 hours, or 12.5 weeks, more per year than in 1979.

"The No. 1 concern that women have today - even more than security - is a lack of time," said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster.

Take Back Your Time and the Massachusetts Council of Churches worked closely last fall with the Lord's Day Alliance, an Atlanta-based group, to urge congregants through fliers and sermons to take "four windows of time" over a month to relax and spend time with their families.

"We're very concerned about the 24/7 commercialization of our society and people feeling stressed from working so many hours," said the council's executive director, the Rev. Diane Kessler.

The Lord's Day Alliance, which has long promoted observing the Sabbath, helped finance the campaign and hopes to spread it to other states.

"The needs are the same whether you're poor or rich, Republican or Democrat. You need time to be set aside," said Tim Norton, executive director of the Lord's Day Alliance. "From a Christian perspective, from purely a religious perspective, we believe that the Bible clearly teaches, Old Testament and New, that God created this rhythm of life that must include down time, a time to set aside and basically stop."

W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who has written extensively about evangelicals, said bridging the divide over how to give Americans more time will not be easy.

"Many hard-working, rank-and-file evangelicals would support legislation guaranteeing paid sick days or paid vacations," Professor Wilcox said. "But evangelical leaders will not go along with these ideas because their close allies in the business community are so firmly against it."

Todd Rakoff, a professor at Harvard Law School who has written about Americans' time squeeze, said, "There is something here that could be bridged, but someone has to grab hold of this issue and figure out a way to make political capital out of it."


Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company