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REUTERS/Thomas White
The US as a whole has no mandated paid medical leave policy.
OPINION

When my wife had a stroke, I learned how awful US sick leave was

Ben Waber
By Ben Waber

Co-founder and president, Humanyze

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Advice, observations, and real-life examples.

After a long car trip with the kids this Thanksgiving, we finally arrived home Sunday night. We were all tired, but my wife trudged out to the grocery store to grab necessities for the coming week. When she returned, I went outside to bring the first of the groceries into the house. When I walked back inside, my wife was on the floor, fighting to stay conscious.

We didn’t know it at the time, but she’d had a stroke. Luckily for us, the stroke only impacted her vision, and she was back to seeing completely normally only a few days later. But we spent the next five days nearly exclusively in a hospital trying to diagnose the cause of the stroke and identify next steps.

It was an exhausting, frightening week. We immersed ourselves in scientific papers on stroke and meta analyses on treatments. My wife had to go through a dizzying number of tests, many of which required her to not eat or drink for 12 hours or more. I probably slept less than my wife, falling asleep on the chair next to her hospital bed or in a cot in the waiting room.

I ended up taking five sick days to take care of my wife, and thankfully she was well enough the following week to return to work.

This experience, however, caused us to reflect on how other people confront similar situations in their work lives. And when I looked up requirements for companies to offer sick leave in the United States, I was shocked.

The US has no mandated paid medical leave policy, with FMLA only allowing for unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks. For high-income individuals who have some savings, this lack of protection is a minor inconvenience. They can forgo their income in favor of protecting their family’s long-term health. Middle- and low-income Americans, on the other hand, will be forced to make the difficult choice between caring for a loved one and providing for their family.

The few states that do mandate companies offer paid sick leave often exclude recently hired workers, part-time workers, and small companies. Massachusetts, for instance, requires that for every 30 hours worked, an employee accrues 1 hour of sick leave, with a maximum of 40 hours a year.In the US today around 13% of workers have been at their current employer for less than 30 weeks, meaning that if MA law were applied nationally approximately 20.9 million people wouldn’t be fully covered by sick leave regulations.

This gap is likely to grow over time as the nature of employment continues to shift from long tenures at a single organization to short stints at multiple companies.

Though I was not forced to choose between caring for my family and my income when my wife had her stroke, the experience helped me understand more deeply how horrifying such a choice would be.

As a first step, other states, and the federal government more generally, should enact protections along the lines of Massachusetts to ensure that people are protected in the event of a medical emergency. Beyond that, sick leave should apply at the start of employment rather than accrue over time. Small employers and companies that employ part time workers can’t be exempt, as they currently are.

I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to leave my wife alone at the hospital for a week so I could go to the office. Even if I had been forced to go into the office, I wouldn’t have been productive. I wouldn’t have been able to have a coherent conversation with my coworkers. It would only have been physical presence and not effective for the organization at all.  

In these cases what’s best for an employee’s family is also best for the company.