As too many middle-class families know, health insurance is only one of the costs associated with getting sick. For more than 40 million workers who currently lack paid sick leave, another pressing concern is how to afford taking time off.
As the Supreme Court prepared to rule on the Affordable Care Act, in nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, the county council passed one of the strongest paid sick leave laws in the nation. It requires most employers to provide at least one hour of paid sick leave per 30 hours worked. It will affect an estimated 90,000 private-sector workers who currently do not receive paid time off.
Montgomery County is the 23rd place in the nation to guarantee paid sick days, and the fifth this year. To appreciate the momentum for paid sick leave, it's necessary to understand how we got here.
A decade ago, there was not a single paid sick leave law in the United States. In 2006, San Francisco approved the first such measure by ballot initiative. That year, Democrats also regained control of Congress, fueling predictions that paid sick leave would become a hot topic at the federal level. But legislation introduced then by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., never came to the floor for a vote.
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Since then, a hard-fought grass-roots campaign has turned paid sick leave into a mainstream issue, and a national paid sick days law could be in the cards for the next Democratic Congress.
The fight began in earnest in 2007, when the Working Families Party, other progressive groups and labor organizations, began pushing legislation in Connecticut.
For the next four legislative sessions, enough Democratic leaders sided with corporate interests to block a bill. The turning point came in 2010, when paid sick leave became a contentious issue in the state's Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Front-runner Ned Lamont, who had challenged Sen. Joe Lieberman from the left in 2006, opposed guaranteeing paid sick leave. His opponent, Dan Malloy, favored it and made Lamont's stance central to his campaign. Malloy closed a double-digit polling deficit and won the support of the Working Families Party, which helped propel him to victory. Connecticut passed the first statewide law guaranteeing paid sick leave in 2012.
In 2013, a similar situation occurred in New York, where then-city council speaker Christine Quinn was the prohibitive favorite for mayor. For three years, Quinn blocked paid sick leave from a vote, despite supermajority support on the council. New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio spoke out, saying, "How on Earth has this bill not been brought to the floor? It's not acceptable. It's not democracy." Quinn's opposition was one of the key reasons she lost the primary to de Blasio.
After the high-profile battle in New York, the political calculus shifted. Eleven places approved paid sick leave requirements in 2014, including California, Massachusetts and several cities in New Jersey. Oregon and Philadelphia joined them in 2015. President Barack Obama further elevated the issue in this year's State of the Union address.
Today, the vast majority of Americans believe paid sick leave should be guaranteed, and Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley agree.
But with more than 40 million Americans who still don't get any paid time off, the fight is far from over. While too many working families are still ailing, we may finally have seen the beginning of the cure.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation magazine.
The Washington Post