By Tom Conway
USW International President
Keli Vereb wasn’t sure how long it would take to recover from complicated neck surgery last year, but she took comfort knowing she’d be able to focus on healing without having to worry about her job.
That’s because United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2227–01 negotiated a contract with Vereb’s employer, U.S. Steel, ensuring paid leave for workers who need time to fight for their health.
Millions of other workers need the same security. But they’re out of luck because America remains the only major industrialized country without a universal paid leave program that protects workers’ livelihoods while they confront serious health and family issues.
President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan fills this gaping hole in the nation’s social infrastructure. It would provide workers with 12 weeks of paid leave so they can navigate some of life’s biggest challenges without fear of unsympathetic bosses docking their wages or even firing them for taking time off.
“I didn’t worry about how I was going to pay the bills while I was off,” Vereb, a caster scheduler based at U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works near Pittsburgh, said of the three months she relied on her union-negotiated leave last year. “My benefits continued. My pension kept accruing.”
Vereb faced an arduous recovery after the operation, one of three she’s had over the years because of injuries sustained in a fender-bender three decades ago.
“It was a whole lot of healing,” recalled Vereb, a union griever, citing the pain and the line of 25 stitches starting at the back of her head. “The first six weeks, I had my neck in a neck immobilizer. I couldn’t even get a shower on my own.”
She’s grateful that the USW fights to retain the leave program during every round of negotiations with U.S. Steel and realizes that many workers across the country are entirely subject to the whims of their bosses.
In the absence of a national paid sick and family leave program, many short-sighted and callous employers force Americans to choose between their health and their paychecks.
About 25 percent of private-sector workers lack even one paid sick day a year, let alone a paid leave program. So many put off health screenings or other preventive care, at the risk of compounding their health problems, so they can keep working to cover the bills.
Other Americans power through their jobs despite kidney stones or cancer treatments or report to work with the flu, sore throats or runny noses, even though they can spread diseases to others and put entire workplaces in jeopardy.
The American Families Plan would spare workers those kinds of agonizing decisions, providing them time off not only for themselves but to care for seriously ill family members, welcome new children, adjust to loved ones’ military deployments, grieve relatives’ deaths or seek safety following sexual assaults, stalking or domestic violence.
“It should be a benefit everyone has,” observed Cheryl Husk, recording secretary for USW Local 9423, which represents workers at Century Aluminum in Hawesville, Ky.
Husk’s son recently needed time off to provide around-the-clock care for his wife and newborn, but he could only get an unpaid leave from his nonunion mechanic’s job. Husk and other family members chipped in to help cover his bills during his time as a caregiver.
Providing paid leave for family emergencies is not only humane but a way to protect others in the workplace.
“I don’t want to be working beside somebody who’s distracted by medical issues at home,” Husk explained. “That doesn’t create a good work atmosphere for anybody. It can even be quite dangerous.”
Also, as other countries have discovered in the case of maternity leave, paid time off contributes to a nation’s competitiveness.
In America, the lack of universal maternity leave forces many moms back to work within just two weeks of giving birth.
“I could never see that,” said Alycia Allen, a painter at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, where members of USW Local 8888 build nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers for the Navy. “Your body’s not even ready yet.”
When her 4-year-old daughter, Skylah, was born, Allen leveraged a pair of USW-negotiated benefits to spend about two months with her infant. Without her union contract, said Allen, a trustee and safety chairperson for Local 8888, she’d have been one of those moms prematurely driven back to work.
Rather than go back too soon, however, some mothers reluctantly quit their jobs, sacrificing careers and income for parenthood. As many as 30 percent of women without paid leave exit the work force within a year of having a baby. And some remain out for a decade or longer.
Vereb already knows she’ll need a fourth surgery to address the continuing deterioration in her neck.
While she knows her union will ensure she has the time off she needs to recover, she can’t help thinking about her brother, who works for a transportation company, and her sister, a grocery store worker, who have no paid leave at all.
If they needed time off for surgery, Vereb said, “they would just lose their jobs.”