Access to leave a barrier for women’s health

by Melissa Broome

As communities, businesses, government and health care organizations celebrate and promote National Women’s Health Week, I can’t help but think of the women who struggle daily to care for themselves without access to paid sick leave.

The first step women are urged to take as a part of Women’s Health Week is to “Visit a health care professional to receive regular checkups and preventive screenings.”

Sounds simple, right? If we value women and their health, then naturally we expect them to take the time each year to visit a cadre of doctor’s for their checkups. Unfortunately, this modest goal is unattainable for countless American women.

The National Women’s Health Week statement from U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, notes:

“Women are frequently the health care decision-makers in their families. We take time off from work to drive a parent to the doctor. We hold our children’s hands while they get their vaccinations … And too often, we put our own health last.”

While I certainly appreciate the intent here, I know this depiction is not the reality for far too many working women. For these women, the thought of taking their family member to a doctor’s visit – let alone scheduling their own preventive care – is impossible.

In every corner of our country, women care for their families while also bringing home a significant share of their families’ income. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that the labor force participation rate for all mothers with children under age 18 is 70.5 percent.

Sadly, many of these women can’t access the time they need to care for their families, let alone themselves.The reality is that 43 percent of women working in the private sector are unable to take a single paid sick day when they are ill. Even worse, workers in low-wage jobs – the majority of whom are women – are even less likely to be able to earn paid sick days. Eighty-two percent of workers making $8.25 per hour or less don’t have access to paid sick days.

As a nation, we can’t in one breath say that we value women’s health while in the next say that we accept the fact that 43 percent of the female workforce is unable to earn paid sick days.

Maryland should strive to set a national example by establishing a paid sick days standard to ensure working women have the job stability and economic security they need to take care of themselves and their families.

As for me, I’m not going to complain the next time one of my annual appointments rolls around. I can schedule these visits without fear of lost wages or – worse yet – my job. I’m one of the lucky ones.

Melissa Broome is JOTF’s senior policy advocate.

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