By Fighting for Paid Sick Leave, the Railworkers Are Fighting for All of Us

Paid sick leave is a right we all deserve — and an urgent public health issue. Win or lose, we’re indebted to the railworkers for their fight to achieve it.

A train operator in a Union Pacific EMD SD40N diesel-electric locomotive at a rail terminal in City of Industry, California, on Thursday, December 1, 2022. (Bing Guan / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

With the help of the Senate, Joe Biden channeled Ronald Reagan this week in moving to deprive railworkers of the right to strike over a simple demand: paid sick leave. The bourgeois apologetics have flowed more freely than Schramsberg at a Silicon Valley fundraiser. Celeste Drake, director of labor issues for the National Economic Council, told the New York Times, “[Y]ou know, in the end this is the president standing with all Americans.”

Many ridiculous things have been said on this topic but this one may be a winner. There was only one way that the president could have stood with “all Americans” this week, and that would have been to defend the workers who are fighting for every one of us by holding their ground on this critical public health issue: the right to recover — and not spread our illnesses around — when we get sick.

Sticking up for paid sick leave would be a political win, as the issue is well understood and popular. That’s because many of us have the same problem as the railworkers: our bosses won’t pay us to stay home when we’re sick. Americans go to work when they’re sick and send our feverish kids to school because we lack the right to stay home with them. We thus spread germs throughout the community, we take too long to recover, and we neglect our long-term health by skipping doctor visits. The lack of sick leave for workers in this country, then, is always abusive. During the deadly pandemic of the last nearly three years, it’s been downright dangerous.

There’s a growing consensus, among policymakers and the public, that this needs to change. In standing with the railroad bosses instead of the workers here, Biden is swimming against a powerful current.

There is no US law requiring that employers offer paid sick leave to workers. But since San Francisco passed a law requiring it in 2007 — with other municipalities and states, including the District of Columbia, following suit over the following decade — the number of workers enjoying this basic benefit has increased. Even so, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, there was still plenty of room for improvement: one quarter of private sector workers in this country had zero paid sick days. (Workers in the public sector, whether federal, state, or local, are better off on this score.)

For American workers who had paid sick leave in March 2020, the average number was eight days — more than the railway workers were asking for. Only 3 percent of workers had an “as needed” sick leave plan with no limit (meaning they can even get cancer and not be ruined by medical debt and unemployment — positively un-American).

These numbers are likely to look better soon. That’s because the pandemic — during which many outbreaks were traced to workplaces like meatpacking plants where workers were forced to come in while ill — has prompted still more state and local governments to mandate paid sick leave. New Mexico passed a law this summer, requiring employers to give workers one hour of sick leave for every thirty hours worked, which means they can get up to eight days a year. Colorado and Virginia have also mandated sick pay, bringing the number of states that do so to seventeen.

Better than any of the latest TikTok crazes — from raw liver to cold showers — paid sick leave is indisputably good for everyone’s health. An emergency federal measure enacted in 2020 demonstrated its effectiveness. A study found that in each state where workers lacked the right to paid sick leave, that federal law reduced the COVID-19 epidemic by four hundred cases per day between March and May of that year. A Canadian study this year had similar findings. As we pointed out last year, our media loves to get us all fighting with one another about vaccine mandates and masks, but our energies are always better spent doing what the railworkers are doing: fighting with our bosses over sick pay. And unlike many COVID-19 measures, paid sick leave is broadly popular, supported by 85 percent of Americans, according to a Pew survey.

There are many other longer-term public health implications. One study found that state paid sick leave laws were associated with a nearly 6 percent decline in emergency room visits, an excellent health indicator and a savings of billions of dollars for those states. That’s because people on public health care plans are more likely to be affected and because emergency room visits are among the most expensive forms of health care. Other studies have found that people with paid sick leave were more likely to go to the doctor when sick and to engage in life-saving preventive care, like getting flu shots.

(Also, while no one has ever won an argument in the United States pointing things like this out, the fact is that no other rich country forces workers to show up when sick.)

The railworkers were right to threaten a strike over this. Sure, a strike could disrupt the economy and the holiday season. But that would have been the rail companies’ fault for not agreeing to provide this vital benefit, which is favored by such widespread consensus.

Indeed, it’s because their strike could be disruptive that these workers are in such a good position to fight: the president should have recognized that and pressured the rail companies to give in. The railworkers are standing up for all of us: we all need to be able to stay home when we are sick and to go on strike when employers refuse our reasonable demands. As well, we all deserve to be safe from deadly or debilitating infections, and when some people must go to work sick — or send their sick kids to school — no one else is safe.

President Biden has claimed to be the most “pro-union president” ever, and he won in 2020 in part because voters believed he’d handle the pandemic better than Trump. Until now, he has been decent on these issues — though it must also be said, until now he hasn’t been asked to sacrifice much political capital on them.

But future generations will equate his action here to Reagan’s decision to break the air traffic controllers’ strike, which had similarly disastrous implications for unions and for public safety. Biden’s move has political risks, too, worrisome for all of us who never want to have to say the words “President Ron DeSantis.”

Whatever the railworkers decide to do next, they deserve our solidarity and gratitude.