Swine flu hits close to home

Just moments ago, we learned that Wake County has become the latest host to a victim of the Swine flu, or the H1N1 virus. This follows the news that four elementary school students in New Hanover County have it, along with individual cases in Durham and Orange Counties, among others. North Carolina now has 22 reported cases of the H1N1 virus.

Every time a new H1N1 victim is identified, public health officials are quoted saying the same thing over and over again and Wake County’s interim director of community health, Dr. Elizabeth Tilton, is following along.

Her words? “If you’re sick, stay at home”.

Sure thing. I can do that easily enough because I have paid sick days. But nearly half of North Carolina’s workers don’t have that luxury. They can’t just lose a day’s pay or perhaps risk a job if they’re feeling flu-like symptons.

Legislation in the NC General Assembly that would change that had its first-ever hearing in the House several weeks ago. And now we’re trying to get the Healthy Families and Healthy Workplaces Act heard in the Senate.

A lack of paid sick days isn’t causing the swine flu outbreak but giving workers access to a small amount of paid sick days would go a long way in improving public health.

It’s a small ask to have the bill simply heard in a Senate committee; let’s hope it actually happens.

Tipping Point: A Step Towards Unfreezing Tip Workers’ Wages

Thankfully the federal minimum wage has been increasing for most workers over the last several years and is set to reach $7.25 per hour this summer. It’s still far from adequate and several dollars less than it was in the 1960’s.

But left out of the picture are the servers, bartenders, and all other workers who depend on tips for their wages. That’s because tipped workers have been excluded from minimum wage increases. Their base wage has been frozen at $2.13 per hour for the last 18 years.

Not surprisingly, tipped employees are typically low-income and poverty rates for these workers are three times the national average for all workers. Throw in the current economic downturn and tipped workers’ wages are stagnating, if not declining. Customers just aren’t as generous to their waiter when they’re feeling the squeeze themselves, if eating out at a restaurant at all.

Fortunately, legislation introduced yesterday in Congress would help restore tipped workers’ wages to more adequate levels. Congresswoman Donna F. Edwards (D-MD) is leading the effort to pass the WAGES Act (Working for Adequate Gains for Employment in Services Act), H.R. 2570.

The bill increases the minimum wage from the current rate of $2.13 per hour incrementally over the next three years, peaking out at $5.50 per hour by 2012.

Given that restaurant workers have been some of the most hardest hit by the current economic crisis and that minimum wage increases are proven to significantly boost consumer spending, the introduction of the WAGES Act is a step in the right direction and well-timed.

National Poll Shows that American Workers Overwhelmingly Support Paid Sick Days

A national Labor Day survey released on Friday reports that more than three-quarters of workers view paid sick days as a basic right of employment that should be guaranteed by government.

The poll, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, showed strong support for paid sick days across all political and demographic lines.

The press release from NORC and the Public Welfare Foundation (which funded the poll) states:

Having paid sick days was seen as “very important” by 77 percent of those surveyed and 86 percent think that employers should be required by law to provide them.  Respondents ranked paid sick days on a par with a minimum wage, overtime pay and family and medical leave—and considered it more important than maxium hour limits and the right to join a union.  At least 80 percent rated paid sick days highly as a basic worker’s right and a basic workplace standard.

And as a bonus to squelch all those small-business fears, at least 70 percent of survey respondents favor requiring both small and large businesses to provide paid sick days to workers.

Well, that seems like pretty solid support for paid sick days and should help bump up the efforts in Ohio to get a paid sick days ballot initiative to pass this November.

North Carolina has a paid sick days campaign too and you can find out more here .

Women Departing the Workforce Not Just to Care for Kids

In case you missed it yesterday, The New York Times’ long-time and well-respected labor reporter Louis Utchitelle put out a piece on how for the first time in years, women are leaving the workforce, not entering it.

Utchitelle’s article takes its cues from a report released yesterday from Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, Equality in Job Loss: Women Are Increasingly Vulnerable to Layoffs During Recessions.

The timely report finds that women are increasingly “catching up” (if you can call it that) to men in terms of job loss and declining employment rates.  While many have assumed that women’s decreasing employment rates are a by-product of women choosing to care for their families at home rather than work, employment data reveals otherwise.  It’s not feminism at work here, it’s the economy.

Utchitelle’s summary of the report’s findings:

After moving into virtually every occupation, women are being afflicated on a large scale by the same troubles as men: downturns, layoffs, outsourcing, stagnant wages or the discouraging prospect of an outright pay cut.  And they are responding as men have, by dropping out or disappearing for a while.    

Besides the remarkable fact that women’s employment rates are stalling, if not falling for the first time in years, the ripple effect on families is even more significant.  When women leave or lose their jobs, the impact on the family income is drastic.  With a full-on recession likely in the coming months (if it hasn’t already arrived), families will be struggling with income loss, if not issues of debt and even foreclosure.

The report does offer some solutions however to aid those families that will be especially vulnerable in the coming months of the downturn, including aid to states to help insure that important government services are maintained, extending Medicaid to the unemployed and their families, and family-friendly workplace policies such as paid sick days. 

These policies would help offer hope to the otherwise dismal reality that finally women have reached some measure of equality in the workplace as men.  It’s just that equality in job loss isn't exactly cause for celebration. 

And the Carousel goes round and round on Child Care Subsidies

It’s up and down time down at the NC General Assembly, as budget conference committee members attempt to work out the differences between the House and Senate budgets.  One moment, things look good, and before you know it, the carousel has reversed directions and your programs have suffered a chop on the budget cutting board.

And so it goes with funding for child care subsidy slots.  The budgets proposed by the Governor and House provided funding to take more than 1,100 off of the waiting list for child care subsidies.  That was a mere dent in the waiting list that’s got nearly 30,000 folks on it currently but at least it’s a start.  The Senate budget, however, switched around the numbers and cut 450 slots off from their child care subsidy funding.

Now, Health and Human Services Conferees have been going back and forth and as of this morning, it looked like the Senate proposal would win out, meaning that only about 650 kids would be taken off of the subsidy waiting list.  As of this afternoon, it appears that the Governor and House will get their way. 

There’s no telling what will happen at the end of today or once the budget is all said and done, of course, but the larger point is that it’s too bad that more funding overall to child care subsidies isn’t on the table. 

Childcare has long been one of the largest, if not largest, budget items for working families (usually it’s competing with healthcare costs) and that’s been the case even without the skyrocketing food and gas prices we’re seeing today.

Those nearly 30,000 kids waiting for quality, affordable childcare need relief and now is not the time to be ignoring them.  Let's hope that at the very least,  budget conferees go with the Governor  and House's budget recommendations and provide funding to get 1,100 more kids into childcare.