Except for summer jobs in high school when I was mowing yards and babysitting for the neighbors, I have always had paid leave and paid sick days. Always. When each of my children were born, I didn’t work for eight weeks. When my mother was hospitalized, I left work that day and stayed with her for a week. Losing my salary, much less my job, never crossed my mind.
This means I have to pay close attention to what it’s like for the more than 85% of people in this country who don’t have paid leave, never mind paid time off to care for sick family members or welcome new children into the home. When they rush to their mother’s side in the hospital, they don’t get paid to sit there for a week. And if it turns out to be a grandmother they rush to care for, the Family Medical Leave Act does not guarantee their job since immediate family only includes parents, children, and spouses.
Most of the people in North Carolina know these things because most of them don’t have paid leave. Prior to COVID-19, 1.2 million private-sector workers in North Carolina were already not entitled to any earned paid sick leave. That means 33% of the private-sector workforce have been forced to give up needed wages and possibly risk their jobs so they can care for their own health needs or the health needs of family members. Workers earning low incomes (disproportionately women and workers of color) are significantly less likely to have earned paid sick days. Sixty percent of those earning less than $20,000 per year lack access to paid leave. Many of these same people are working in low-wage jobs now considered “essential.”
Since so many employers appear reticent to provide paid leave, it falls to society to make these things happen. As a society we have the responsibility to ensure that our neighbors have the same advantages we have. If I can rush to my mother’s side, everyone should be able to rush to a mother’s side—and a grandmother’s. We can elect lawmakers who will protect all workers by crafting legislation that requires paid leave and living wages.
For people of faith, especially those who read the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, this moral imperative is grounded in the Great Commandment—love God, love your neighbor. Imagine if we all entered the voting booth this year asking ourselves: Who can I vote for that will ensure the best outcome for my neighbor’s well-being? Who can I vote for that will work to create paid leave, paid sick days, and raise the minimum wage?
Can I get a witness?
The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Copeland is the executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches.