Last week, when Pope Francis entered the Capitol building to give a historic address before a joint session of Congress, the pontiff carried with him a moving plea for the establishment of a “culture of care.” The Pope’s address included an appeal to dialogue with “the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and—one step at a time—to build a better life for their families.” But too many of those working parents—especially those in low-paying jobs—know just how precarious that effort to care for their families can be.
Many of us, including the pope, might very well disagree on just what makes a family, but we can all agree that the common good of our society is best served when caregivers don’t need to risk their livelihoods in order to provide care for young people. However, policies like paid sick leave—which allows workers to take time off to care for themselves or their families if someone becomes ill or incapacitated—remain out of reach for too many people.
President Obama recently made headlines after signing an executive order requiring federal contractors to grant workers up to seven days of paid sick leave each year. But the fact remains that out of the 22 wealthiest nations in the world, the United States is the only one without any form of guaranteed paid sick leave for workers. As a result, only about 43 percent of workers have reported the ability to take paid leave to care for a sick family member. Nearly a quarter of American workers report losing a job or being threatened with job loss for taking time off to care for a sick child or relative.
While paid family and medical leave impacts all families, it especially impacts women. Six in every 10 mothers are the primary, sole, or co-breadwinner for their family. This includes both single mothers and mothers with an unemployed spouse or partner at home. And about a third of all children in the United States live in a single-parent household; nearly half of them are already living below the poverty line. Forty percent of their parents are working in low-wage jobs—the types of jobs least likely to offer paid sick leave.
Many working families simply cannot afford to take the time they need to care for their children when they get sick. For a family headed by a sole breadwinner who earns the average wage for workers without paid sick leave, it would take just three days of missed work to be driven below the federal poverty line. With over one in five churchgoers estimated to be living in households that earn less than $25,000 a year, people of faith must come to realize that this kind of instability—and injustice—is a reality for many of the people in their congregations.
This desire to care for our children is a human instinct, a family value, and a faith practice. The scriptures appeal repeatedly to God as a nurturing parent who always comes to the aid of their children. Most of us are familiar with the imagery of “God the Father,” and scripture pushes us further. God the Mother speaks through the prophet Isaiah to promise: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” In the Christian New Testament, Jesus remarks at how often he has “desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
Faith advocates have endorsed more just, family-friendly workplace policies for years. It’s now time for people of faith—whether in the pulpits, in the pews, or in politics—to stand up, speak out, and actively promote paid sick leave as a real family value and faith practice that impacts every working family. In a real “culture of care,” when parents inevitably get that call from the school nurse, they can leave their desk, or register, or assembly line and offer the care their children need. State and federal elected officials and business leaders—especially those claiming to be pro-family and pro-faith—should take the steps necessary to make access to paid leave a reality for all working families.