Today the federal Family and Medical Leave Act turns 21. The law has helped millions of Americans take time off work to nurture their newborn child, care for a critically ill family member, or recover from their own serious health condition. But America’s families will not regain economic security until all workers have access to paid leave for health and family care. With Congress locked in dysfunctional bickering, cities and states will have to lead the way – and we in Washington state are proud to be part of that fight.
Women now make up half the workforce. More than two-thirds of Washington state school kids have all their parents in the labor force, and ever growing numbers of workers are providing care for aging family members. But women still earn far from equal pay – even with the same qualifications and in the same jobs as men. Mothers especially experience rampant discrimination. Single mothers and their children are shockingly likely to live in poverty.
The FMLA provides only for unpaid leave. It doesn’t cover workers in smaller companies, those who have changed jobs in the past year or work less than 1,250 hours for the same employer. It also can’t be used for preventive medical care or routine illnesses like the flu or a child’s fever. Without policy standards, 40% of workers don’t get a single paid sick day, and only 12% are provided paid family leave benefits by their employers.
Those statistics mean that working moms like Alma are forced to go to work when their child is sick. Too many woman go back to work a few days following childbirth, like Selena did so she could save her few precious weeks of paid time off for when her premature baby was released from the hospital. And working women like Evelin suffer unnecessary financial and emotional stress because of their parent’s illness.
Washington state is helping lead the movement for change, with policy innovation at the local level. Seattle’s Paid Sick and Safe Leave Law has been protecting working families like Monica’s, and helping the local economy thrive since September 2012. Now campaigns for sick leave are underway in Tacoma and under consideration in other cities around the state.
In the state legislature, a bill based on the Seattle sick leave policy passed the House just last week with a strong assist from Washington’s Work and Family Coalition. Unfortunately, the bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate, which is more likely to pass legislation seeking to overturn city sick days and minimum wage laws.
The Work and Family Coalition has also developed a family and medical leave insurance proposal that would assure all workers have a source of income during those occasions when they must take extended time to care – when a new baby is born, cancer strikes, or a parent becomes seriously ill. We know paid family and medical leave will improve outcomes for young children, seniors, and working families. In the states with insurance programs already in place, parents not only take longer leaves to care for a new child, but new moms are less likely to go on public assistance or food stamps, and are more likely to be employed – and at higher wages – a year following birth.
Paid leave policies may seem like common sense, but winning change won’t be easy. There are powerful lobbying groups representing mega corporations whose owners flourish under the status quo and view any policies to empower working women and the middle class as a threat.
Let’s not wait for another flu epidemic to pass paid sick days. Let’s not allow another whole generation of kids to be born without paid family leave. Our elected representatives in city councils, the state legislature, and Congress need to hear from us loud and often that we expect them to act.