The nationwide campaign for paid sick leave is growing. And that’s a good thing. About half of all workers don’t have any paid sick leave, and those in the lowest paid jobs are least likely to have it. The campaign provides an opportunity for the gay rights movement that it has yet to seize. It also provides an opportunity for labor organizers to acknowledge the existence of LGBT families and protect them…even in states with anti-gay marriage constitutional amendments.
Paid sick leave laws typically allow the worker to use his or her leave to care for sick family members. So of course the law must define who those people are. As readers of my book know, the definition I favor is the one that all federal government employees have; they can take leave to care for anyone with whom they have a “close association” that is the “equivalent of a family relationship.” That’s the standard in the proposed federal Healthy Families Act. I tried to get the District of Columbia to adopt this definition last year without success, but we do include couples who live in a committed relationship for more than a year. The bill pending now in Illinois includes anyone the employee has lived with for more than six months.
So I was saddened and outraged to learn last week about what’s going on in Ohio. After failing to get paid sick leave through the Ohio legislature, organizers have proposed a ballot initiative. If they get enough signatures by next month, Ohioans will vote in November on whether their state will mandate paid sick leave. So far, so good, but then I read the definition of who a worker can take leave to care for; it's limited to spouse, parent, and child and so excludes unmarried couples and household members who aren’t spouse, parent, or child. Given that Ohio has a constitutional amendment saying the state will not recognize same-sex marriage, that means it excludes all same-sex couples!
The Ohio campaign claims it is building support for the federal Healthy Families Act, so why reject the recognition of all families in the federal bill? Even if the Ohio initiative included only the definition in the Illinois bill, it would cover couples who had lived together for six months without singling out unmarried couples. Therefore it would not run afoul of Ohio's constitutional amendment but would protect LGBT couples who live together.
So not only does the Ohio initiative fail to grasp the truly expansive definition in the proposed federal Healthy Families Act, it even ignores the needs of gay and lesbian couples. With all the attention on gay marriage over the past several years, I would think Ohio organizers would have the needs of gay and lesbian workers in mind when writing a bill. Apparently not.
But I also fault the gay rights movement. Where is it in the fight for paid sick leave? Where is it in seeing the value of coalition work that meets the needs of more than just gay people? Type “paid sick leave” into the search engine on the website of Out and Equal Workplace Advocates, and you get…nothing. Where is Equality Ohio, other than missing from the long list of endorsers of the Ohio Paid Sick Leave Initiative? And who can blame them for that, given that the initiative omits LGBT families? But if they had been there at the beginning, at the drafting of the initiative, surely they could have had influence.
The website for Ohioans for Healthy Families says “it’s time for Ohio to value ALL families.” Hey – valuing all families is MY agenda…it’s the name of my book! It’s the definition in the federal Healthy Families Act that does that, not the one in Ohio. Claiming their initiative values all families when it doesn’t means either that they don’t know LGBT families exist or they don’t care. Either way, shame on them.
As for gay rights advocates, don’t wait another minute. Find out if your state has a paid sick leave bill in the works, and make sure it has the most inclusive definition of family possible…like the one federal workers enjoy today.