(CNNMoney) Editor's note: Tom Perez is the U.S. Labor Secretary. Margot Dorfman is the CEO of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
About 40 million private sector workers in America don't have access to paid sick days. Alex Hernandez is one of them. A warehouse worker in Chicago and father of two, Alex and his wife struggle to make ends meet and balance work and family life. In a recent letter to the Department of Labor, Alex wrote, "When I am ill, I have to go into work because I am afraid of losing my job if I call in sick. My family relies on me and the paycheck that I bring home. If I don't work, I don't get paid. Every penny counts, and even a few hours away impacts us and how we live."
In recent years, public awareness about the importance of paid sick leave has grown exponentially -- thanks in large part to the dedicated advocates who have championed this critical lifeline for working families. It seems that every week we read about a new company taking steps to expand access, or a new city or state enacting a paid sick days policy.
But Alex's story hits close to home for so many working people in our country. Here in the most prosperous nation on earth, you should never have to choose between the job you need and the family you love. Unfortunately, the workers who can least afford to take unpaid time off are also the least likely to have access. Only 27% of private sector workers in the bottom 10% of the income scale have access to paid sick time, compared to 87% of the highest 10%.
President Obama has called on Congress to enact a national paid sick leave policy, but they have yet to act. But he's not waiting on Congress to make progress, and this week, the Department of Labor finalized a regulation to implement the President's Executive Order requiring federal contractors to provide their workers up to 56 hours of paid sick leave in a year. The new regulations will help an estimated 1.15 million working people meet the demands of their jobs while also taking care of their responsibilities at home.
Not only is access to paid sick leave a moral imperative, it is also important for public health. A person with the flu should stay home and get the rest they need without spreading their illness to coworkers. In fact, the CDC estimates that approximately 5 million cases of H1N1 influenza could have been avoided in 2009 with universal access to paid sick leave.
Paid sick leave is also good business. Workers with access to paid sick days and other benefits are more satisfied in their work, and less likely to leave, leading to reduced turnover costs. Earlier this month, the Center for Economic and Policy Research released a study that found that the implementation of a paid sick leave requirement for New York City employers did not increase costs for the vast majority of employers and did not lead to abuse of the benefit, despite claims from opponents that the policy would be devastating for businesses.
That's why the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce supports the President's efforts to require contractors to offer paid sick days -- and why it has supported the Administration's other efforts to require contractors to do right by their workers. When the President increased the minimum wage for contractors, the Chamber was on board. The same was true when he issued an order requiring contractors to report when they have had violations of labor laws. That's because women-owned firms often already provide the decent wages and benefits that support working families, and they want to compete on a level playing field. Just as women-owned business are often model employers, the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce agrees with the Obama Administration that the federal government also should be a model for other employers, and should spend taxpayer dollars in line with our nation's values.
In 2016, we continue to live by national workplace policies designed for a mid-20th century economy. Working families -- and particularly women -- suffer as a result of our failure to update the rules to reflect our modern reality. The new sick leave for federal contractors rule is a good step in the right direction. Now, we need Congress to act to make sure every worker in America can take the time they need when they or a loved one falls ill.