“Pay a worker each day before the sun sets.” Deuteronomy 24:15
Every year, I discuss this particular mitzvah with my confirmation class: “Pay a worker each day before the sun sets.” We typically have an interesting discussion about minimum wage and service workers in our community and homes. I then ask why this is such an important law of social justice in Judaism. Our teenage students immediately understand how basic wages are related to the survival of a worker and his or her family. As we explore parshat Shoftim, which focuses on justice, during this Labor Day week, let us stop and think of the many service workers who impact our lives on a daily basis.
Workers in our society, particularly in service professions, rely on their wages for the basic necessities of life – food, shelter, health care and protection for families. Judaism has many mitzvot (commandments) protecting those who labor. The Torah affirms that the workers should be regarded as you would any needy members of your own household.
Jews United for Justice supports a thoughtful program for Labor Day weekend called Labor on the Bimah. Its purpose is to teach us to think about and act upon worker’s issues and rights. This year, Temple Emanuel is joining more than 25 participating synagogues across Maryland to focus on an injustice that has taken root in our society, namely the lack of sick leave for service workers. Last year our temple was a vocal leader in raising the minimum wage in Maryland. We hosted the Montgomery County delegation to the General Assembly for a press conference in which we as leaders of faith joined them in that cause.
JUFJ is a member of Working Matters, a coalition of advocates, business owners and workers in Maryland organizing to change the status quo and pass the Earned Sick and Safe Leave Act. More than 700,000 people in Maryland do not have paid sick days that would allow them to take time off when they or their family members are sick. Forty-two percent of working women have not been able to take time off to care for a sick child or parent. Disturbingly, nearly one in four adults nationwide has reported losing a job or being threatened with job loss for needing to take time off to deal with a personal or family illness. For many of these workers, a few days without pay is equivalent to losing an entire month’s grocery budget.
In testimony before the Maryland General Assembly, Emanuel McCray, an Army veteran, parent and Walmart employee whose Hodgkin’s lymphoma is in remission, told legislators, “Everyone gets sick, but many of us are forced to work regardless. If I try to take sick time, managers will use it against me. It doesn’t matter if you have a doctor’s note or not. Supervisors have written up my co-workers for calling out sick. They have also used calling in sick as a means to getting rid of people or to pass by people for promotions.”
Since 2012, advocates and workers in Maryland have been organizing to pass HB 735, the Earned Sick and Safe Leave Act, which would allow workers to earn one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours they work up to seven days a year. Jews United for Justice and other labor organizations won the expansion of a similar law in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. It is time for Maryland to live up to its progressive reputation and support HB 735. Paid sick days allow workers to support themselves with dignity, health and independence – true Jewish values. No one should have to choose between their health or the well-being of a loved one and their job.
This year, as we approached Labor Day, the weekly Torah portions offered us detailed instructions: In parshat Shoftim, the Torah is concerned with appointing judges and magistrates who will show no partiality between rich and poor, stating famously, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Let us, as a Jewish community, be a strong voice to support this cause and remain true to the ideals of our Jewish sense of justice.
Rabbi Stone has served as rabbi of Temple Emanuel in the Greater Washington, D.C. area since 1988. He is known internationally and nationally for his social justice activism on climate change. In Maryland he has been a strong advocate for workers rights and economic justice.