Why Rural Workers Have It The Hardest

Rural workers are often underpaid, receive fewer benefits, and struggle to achieve a healthy work-life balance.

By Kari Apted | Published

Rural workere

One percentage of the United States population is often ignored when it comes to discussions about paid work leave. Rural workers face unique challenges, including extremely long daily commutes or working for small companies unable to provide paid time off or health insurance. NPR recently shared how rural Americans are struggling to maintain a good work/life balance and how mandated paid leave could improve their condition.

Tens of millions of American workers live in rural areas, loosely defined by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services as whatever “encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.” In other words, any area that is not urban is considered rural. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service has a Rural Poverty & Well-Being division that researches the current conditions of rural workers and more clearly defines the multiple factors that affect them.

States have hugely different paid leave regulations, and most seem to hit rural workers the hardest. About 14 states and around 20 cities and counties have now mandated some form of paid sick leave. But most states that have a 20% or greater rural population lack such laws, leaving rural workers vulnerable when they need to take time off to have a baby or care for a family member.

Ruby B. Sutton is a rural worker who had a three-hour round-trip commute to the mine where she worked as an environmental engineer. When she discovered she was pregnant with her first child, she struggled to figure out how to manage her 12-plus-hour workdays. Not only would childcare costs be prohibitive, her brief paid maternity leave wasn’t enough time to bond with her newborn, so she made the difficult decision to quit.

The Covid pandemic led to increased attention on paid leave policies because so many people needed to quarantine to avoid infecting coworkers. The 2020 Families First Coronavirus Response Act temporarily required all public employers and all companies with under 500 employees to give urban and rural workers at least two weeks of paid sick leave. Unfortunately, that requirement ceased at the end of the year.

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires companies with 50 or more employees to allow workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for medical needs. But many employees simply cannot afford to go three months without pay. This is especially true for rural workers who generally receive lower pay and fewer benefits to begin with.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 77% of workers at private companies had paid sick leave in March 2022. However, part-time employees, lower-wage earners, and workers in construction, farming, and forestry are less likely to get paid time off. This means that many rural workers go to work sick, potentially infecting the entire workplace.

Rural workers also have longer drives to access medical care, which means even if they get one paid sick day, they might spend the entire day driving to and from the doctor instead of resting and recovering. Worker advocates are pushing for a federal policy that protects paid sick and family leave for all workers. Guaranteed benefits for all could significantly reduce the number of workers who have to choose between losing income or losing their jobs.

The Federal Employee Paid Leave Act of 2020 provides the nation’s two million civilian federal workers with 12 weeks of paid parental leave. Rural workers are overwhelmingly in favor of governments creating a permanent paid family and medical leave mandate. Lawmakers have been less enthusiastic about setting a national paid leave policy, saying that it could be too big a financial burden for small and struggling businesses to carry.