Democratic presidential candidates take part in the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidates take part in the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Steven Greenhouse is a former New York Times labor reporter and author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, to be published by Knopf this August. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

With the 2020 presidential debates officially underway, the candidates need to be asked about their positions on some fundamental worker rights. The United States is the world’s wealthiest nation, but when it comes to basic rights like paid leave and health care, its workers are far behind those in other advanced industrial nations.

The United States is among a small group of countries that does not have laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave, for example. The only other nations without such protections are Suriname, Papua New Guinea and several Pacific island states. Over 100 countries have legislation that guarantees workers at least 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave. In the United Kingdom, for instance, parents of newborns can generally share up to 50 weeks of leave, including 37 weeks of paid leave.

The United States is also the only industrial nation that doesn’t have a national law guaranteeing workers any vacation, paid or unpaid. The European Union guarantees workers at least four weeks’ paid vacation in all 28 member countries. The UK calls for 28 days’ vacation, and France guarantees six weeks’ vacation.

The United States is the only country among 34 industrial nations (other than South Korea) that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days. While many Americans take paid sick days for granted, over half of workers in the bottom fourth of wage earners receive no paid sick leave. I’ve interviewed grocery store workers and nurses whose bosses fired them for taking a day off because they were sick or they had a sick child.

I never cease to be astonished that when it comes to these basic rights — family-friendly protections that are fundamental to reducing work-life stress — American workers are so far behind their counterparts in other nations. Whenever a lawmaker in Congress introduces a bill to require employer-paid sick leave or employer-paid parental leave, these proposals go nowhere because many corporate lobbyists scream that these are horrific “mandates” that will be hugely expensive and may force corporations to lay off workers or even go out of business. These lobbyists mysteriously ignore that myriad businesses in other industrial nations survive and thrive even with these worker-friendly rules.

So during this election season’s debates, the candidates — for president, the House and the Senate — should be asked whether they would endorse a “contract” for the American worker that would guarantee these basic worker rights. Such a contract would be a good way to separate true worker-friendly candidates from those who pretend to support workers. This contract could also create some momentum for all American workers to finally receive these basic protections.

This contract should call for all workers to receive:

  • Paid parental leave for at least 12 weeks
  • Paid sick leave (at least five days per year)
  • Paid vacation: a minimum of two weeks’ paid vacation after a year on the job, and a minimum of three weeks after five years on the job
  • Universal health coverage: Even after the enactment of Obamacare, far too many American families still can’t afford basic health care. The Federal Reserve found that one in four Americans skipped needed medical care in 2017 because they couldn’t afford the cost. Such a measure would make sure that no workers or their families would ever be caught without coverage and unable to afford needed care because they were laid off and unemployed. Remember, the United States is the only industrial nation without universal health coverage.
  • Free community college: America is known as the land of economic opportunity and the American dream, but economic mobility in the United States is now lower than in many European nations. Academic studies have found less mobility for young people born into low-income families in the United States than in Britain, France, Sweden and Italy.
  • Lifelong training credits: Far too many workers who have lost their jobs in their 40s, 50s and 60s have faced month after month of continued unemployment. Too often, these Americans feel ill-equipped for the 21st-century job market. It’s time that we as a nation ensure smart and free retraining for all jobless American workers, whether they’re 24, 44 or 64. This would also boost worker productivity overall.
  • Increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024, while giving lower-wage states the option to delay a $15 minimum until 2027. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 hasn’t been raised since 2009 — the longest stretch without an increase since the federal minimum wage law was first enacted eight decades ago. The $7.25 minimum wage is worth 29% less than its 1968 level, after factoring in inflation. Indeed, the ratio of America’s federal minimum wage to median hourly income of all Americans is the lowest among a group of 31 industrial nations — the ratio is just 34% in the United States, compared with 62% in France and 54% in Britain.

Many worker groups will protest that these proposals are too modest and fall far short of standards in most other industrial nations. But these measures can be viewed as an important, needed first step after the policy-making pendulum has been swinging against America’s workers for decades.

This contract for the American worker has a modest goal: to restore some balance in the workplace so that America’s workers have some of the same basic protections that workers in every other industrial nation have.