After a brief respite from the pandemic, rural workers return to life without paid leave

When Ruby B. Sutton found out she was pregnant in late 2021, it was hard to imagine how her full-time job would fit in with a newborn at home. She was faced with a three-hour round trip to the mine where she worked as an environmental engineer, 12-plus hour days, costly childcare, and her desire to be present with her newborn.

Sutton, 32, said the minimum paid maternity leave her employer offered didn’t seem like enough time for her body to heal from childbirth or bond with her first child. These concerns were heightened when she required an emergency caesarean section.

“I’m very career oriented,” Sutton said. “It was really hard to make that decision.”

Sutton quit her job because she felt that even more unpaid leave would not be enough. She also knew that caring for a child after maternity leave would cost a significant portion of her salary if she returned to work.

Tens of millions of American workers face similar decisions when they need to take care of themselves, a family member or a child. The wild variation in paid leave rules from state to state and locally means the choice is further complicated by financial factors. And workers in rural areas face even greater challenges than those in cities, including longer distances to hospitals and fewer health care providers, exacerbating health and income inequalities. Companies in rural areas may be less likely to volunteer benefits because they tend to be smaller and workers have fewer employers to choose from.

While a growing number of states, cities, and counties have enacted paid sick leave or general paid leave laws in recent years, most states, where more than 20% of the population lives in rural areas, do not have them, leaving workers vulnerable. Vermont and New Mexico are the only states with significant rural populations that have passed laws requiring some form of paid sick leave.

Experts say gaps in paid leave requirements mean workers in rural areas often find it hard to take care of themselves or their loved ones to make ends meet.

“The problem is that because it’s a small percentage of the population, it’s often forgotten,” said Ann Lofaso, a law professor at West Virginia University.

The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to paid leave policies as millions of people contracted the virus and had to quarantine for five to 10 days to avoid infecting colleagues. The Families Coronavirus Response Act of 2020 temporarily required employers with fewer than 500 employees and all public employers to provide workers with at least two weeks of paid sick leave, but that requirement expired at the end of 2020.

After the expiration date, workers were forced to rely on the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which requires companies with 50 or more employees to give them up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for themselves or family members. But many workers can’t afford to work that long without pay.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by March 2022, 77% of private sector workers paid sick leave through their employers, a small increase from 2019, when 73% of private sector workers had it. But workers in certain industries, such as construction, agriculture, forestry and mining, who work part-time and those on lower wages are less likely to receive paid sick leave.

“Paid leave is presented as a costly item,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

But this is bearing fruit: without it, people who are forced to go to work worsen their health. And, of course, infectious workers who return too early are unnecessarily endangering others in the workplace.

Supporters say stronger federal policies guaranteeing and protecting paid sick leave and family leave would mean workers wouldn’t have to choose between getting sick at work or losing their income or job.

A recent report by New America, a left-wing think tank, argues that developing paid leave policies could boost jobs; reduce economic, gender and racial inequalities; and generally uplift local communities.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, a 2020 poll found support for paid sick and family leave is popular among rural U.S. residents, with 80% of rural voters supporting a permanent paid family and medical leave program that allows people to take time off. from work to caring for children or other family members.

But lawmakers were divided over the creation of a national policy, with opponents fearing that the paid leave requirement would be too much of a financial burden for small or struggling businesses.

In 2006, voters in San Francisco approved the Paid Sick Leave Ordinance, making it the first city in the US to mandate paid sick leave. Since then, 14 states, the District of Columbia, and 20 other cities or counties have done so. Two other states, Nevada and Maine, have enacted general paid leave laws that provide for time that can be used to treat illness.

Federal employees are offered 12 weeks of paid parental leave under the Federal Employees’ Paid Leave Act of October 2020. It covers more than 2 million civilian workers employed by the US government, although the law must be re-approved every fiscal year and employees are not eligible until they have completed one year of service.

A patchwork of laws across the country leaves workers in several predominantly rural states like Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, where more than 40% of residents live outside cities, without mandatory paid sick and family leave.

Sutton said she would “definitely enjoy” staying at work if she could take more paid maternity leave. She said she wants to return to work, but the future is unclear. She still has a lot of things to think about, like if she and her husband want more kids and when she can feel healthy enough to try for a second baby after having a C-section last summer.

Sutton recalled a friend she worked with at a gold mine a few years ago who quit her job a few months after giving birth. “And now I understand everything she told me then. … She’s like, “I can’t do that,” you know?

This story was originally published by Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2023 SDG 89.3. To learn more, visit KCUR 89.3.

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