Work-life balance policies are increasingly important economic issues

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Work-life policies like paid sick and medical leave, and reasonable hours and hours, are becoming a bigger economic issue as in-person workers wield their heightened influence in a tight labor market — and face over two years of working on the front lines of a pandemic.

Driving the news: A battle over paid sick leave and working conditions nearly crippled the country’s economy last week. The railwaymen, who say they do not have easy access to paid sick leave, were ready to strike if their employers did not improve their working conditions.

  • These issues constitute the human side of the supply chain, which has proven fragile in the crisis.
  • “They’re human beings, you know, they’re not machines,” says Sharita Gruberg, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Background: Railroads, in an effort to cut costs and boost profits, have instituted a restrictive policy requiring employees to be on call more often and penalizing them with a points-based system for unscheduled time off, reported the New York Times.

  • Railway workers have not had paid sick leave, 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,” according to the NYT.
  • The tentative agreement reached last week grants railway workers unpaid medical and sick leave, and sets a key precedent for unions in negotiating leave – something they have never done before.

Meanwhile: Workers in many fields are more willing to strike, demanding better wages and — importantly — better conditions, the Wall Street Journal reports, noting that this reflects how the pandemic has reshaped jobs and attitudes toward work.

  • In Minnesota last week, 15,000 nurses left their jobs due to stalled contract negotiations. Nurses say they are exhausted after three years of working in a pandemic.
  • Mental health workers are on strike in California and Hawaii, and nursing home workers in Pennsylvania also just concluded a strike last week, earning better pay and better nurse-to-patient ratios, reports the WSJ.

Zoom out: The United States does not require employers to provide paid sick leave; in other wealthy countries, it is commonplace.

Data: CEPR; Graphic: Tory Lysik/Axios

While 94% of high-income workers in the United States have paid sick leave, only 53% of those in the lowest quartile of earners have access to it, 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 had no access to paid sick leave in a 2020 survey.
  • Efforts to pass paid leave nationally have failed during the pandemic, surprising advocates who thought COVID would push lawmakers into action.

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

  • But even when employers have sick leave on paper, it doesn’t always translate into practice.
  • Workplace policies can be structured to make it almost impossible for someone to stay home from in-person work – onerous rules about doctor’s notes or finding someone to fill the shift work can prevent people from calling.
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