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5 December 2022

The weirdness of America’s approach to sick days

The country’s rail strikes reveal a vulnerability in its workforce.

By Charlotte Kilpatrick

One would think that after the country suffered more than a million Covid deaths, American politicians would have learned something about the value of paid sick days. However, last night the US Senate voted against a measure that would have granted rail workers paid sick leave and instead granted them a paltry “one personal day” per year.

The Senate was forced to an urgent vote because rail workers had threatened to strike on 9 December if their demands for a wage increase and paid sick leave were not met. If the strike had gone ahead, at a busy time of the year for rail traffic, estimates show it would have cost the economy around $2bn a day.

The bill that has now been sent to Joe Biden, the president, for ratification lacks the backing of four rail unions that represent over half of rail workers. Initially the unions requested 15 paid sick days, the ability to see a doctor without having to use vacation time, and a wage increase. The House passed a measure to allow seven paid sick days, but the Senate couldn’t find enough Republican support to pass the 60-vote threshold. The Senate did grant rail workers permission to take three paid sessions off per year to see a doctor, but said they must be scheduled 30 days in advance (so good luck if you have a sudden raging toothache) and that they must fall on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

If 15 sick days sounds like a lot, it’s important to remember that American workers are rarely guaranteed any time off at all. The average American employee is lucky to get ten paid days off for holiday and 12 weeks of unpaid time off to have a baby or care for a sick relative. The ability to even see a doctor often relies on employment status because medical insurance is typically granted through one’s employer. If a boss decides on a whim that he wants to fire an employee with type 2 diabetes who cannot afford to pay thousands of dollars a month for insulin without insurance, he is free to do so.

Given the vulnerability of the average American worker, one would hope that Biden would stand up with the unions and put people before profits. But just as British rail strikers found themselves abandoned by Keir Starmer, Biden betrayed his working class base and refused to use his authority to advance the workers’ demands. Biden’s decision to side with rail bosses is even more disappointing considering he once called himself “Blue Collar Joe” and vowed to be “the most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history”.

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All this comes at a time when many Americans are suffering in huge numbers from stress, poverty and work-related illnesses. Like many of the rail workers, Americans without a four-year college degree are dying three years earlier than their better educated counterparts. So-called deaths of despair, which include alcoholism, drug overdose and suicide, claimed the lives of 70,000 Americans a year between 2005 and 2019. Most of these deaths were among the working class. 

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Despite what Congressional Republicans and a few Brits, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, might believe, paid time off is not a luxury. It prevents burn-out, lowers heart rates and stress levels and allows workers of all types to live healthy, meaningful lives. The 2018 Congressional calendar showed that Congress would be in session for only 121 out of 261 working days in the year. It’s tough to imagine how much the health and happiness of the average American worker would improve if they were given even half the number of days that Congress takes each year.

[See also: What the strong US midterm results mean for Joe Biden]

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