Today is the twenty-seventh anniversary of the signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees individuals twelve weeks of unpaid, job-guaranteed time to care for their new children, seriously ill relatives, or own serious illnesses or military leave. In addition, today, women are actually half the paid workforce: According to the most recent jobs report out of the U.S. Department of Labor, women now hold half of all payroll jobs. Since that number excludes domestic workers and farmworkers, the total number is likely higher. This is only the second time this has happened since 2010, and is a monumental indicator of progress in economic gender equity.
With numbers like these, we should be closer to a reality where care and labor are equally valued and not mutually exclusive: a reality in which we have the flexibility to care for ourselves and our family members without risking financial security, career development, or retirement security; where we’re paid equally, and have affordable health care that covers birth control; where high-quality child care and long-term care are affordable, available, and flexible, and the teachers and caregivers are well compensated and treated with respect and dignity; where our family and medical leave is paid, universal, and inclusive.
Alas, we are not; we still have a long way to go on the road to economic justice. And this means that policymakers still have work to do.
The Right Next Step to Take
Fortunately, there are a number of powerful policy ideas on the table that will help us move farther along, including on the crucial matter of having the time and means to care. Last week, on January 28, the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on legislative proposals for paid family and medical leave, including the FAMILY Act (S. 463/H.R. 1185). The FAMILY Act would create a national paid family and medical leave program to provide individuals with twelve weeks of partial income when they take time off for FMLA purposes. The bill would ensure that no one needs to risk losing a much-needed paycheck by taking time to care for family or themselves. As bill sponsor Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) said at the hearing, “…while more and more states, as well as private businesses, are implementing paid leave, it should not depend on your zip code. Paid leave is an economic necessity.” This is the second hearing on paid leave that the committee has held since the new majority took over last year, elevating the priority level of this important issue.
The FAMILY Act makes an important contribution to the broader agenda of gender, race, and economic equity, values which many Americans share. These values are reflected in how the bill helps make sure that everyone can care for their own health and their families, no matter who they are. However, in spite of the fact that so many of us share these values and goals, it’s clear that the United States is far from achieving them. Unfortunately, our collective best intentions have not been enough. That’s because the systems and structures that currently govern our actions—structures which are scaffolded by policy—make it too easy for the power to decide policies, and the resources necessary for actualizing them, to be concentrated in the privileged hands of too few individuals. And too often, those individuals use power to hoard wealth and influence, when the purpose of power should be to get everyone what they need.
Changing the laws of the land is one of the essential ways of realizing our best intentions. While the FAMILY Act alone won’t solve all of those issues, it’s an important path to equity.
Changing the laws of the land is one of the essential ways of realizing our best intentions. While the FAMILY Act alone won’t solve all of those issues, it’s an important path to equity. There is also a strong business case for paid family and medical leave—increased recruitment and retention, improved productivity, and loyalty, among other benefits. But at its core, this policy is about valuing communities, people, and care.
And Americans can’t wait any longer for the kind of intervention in our public priorities that the FAMILY Act represents. In the wealthiest country on earth, it is still, on the whole, too hard to parent, to foster or adopt a child, or to have an aging parent who needs support as they face Alzheimer’s, cancer, or other diseases of old age; and too hard to make ends meet while caring for a seriously ill loved one of any age, or to be ill yourself. All of those situations are hard enough on their own. Our public institutions should be working to ease the challenges. But the present heartless reality is this: just as you face the most emotionally and physically draining experiences of your life, you also must shoulder the stress of possibly losing your paycheck, multiplying the struggle to pay your bills, or derailing your career.
For those with the savings to help cover emergencies, who are lucky enough to have an employer who provides paid leave, or who work in a state that guarantees it, the lack of a national paid leave policy is less devastating. But persistent racial and gender wealth gaps—yet another bequest of structural racism and sexism—leave women of color with the least amount of wealth. For example, single Black women have a median wealth of $200 and single Hispanic women $100, less than a penny for every dollar of wealth owned by single White non-Hispanic men. At the same time, a disproportionate percentage of women in low-wage and part-time jobs are also less likely to have access to paid leave from their employers, and younger workers and workers of color are less likely to have access to any form of paid time off. And since women are the ones doing the majority of the caregiving, the burden falls on them the greatest. As Kemi Role from the National Employment Law Project testified at the House Ways and Means Committee: “We must ensure that paid leave addresses the context that families of color face and doesn’t exacerbate the ‘economic, racial, and health inequities’ that already exist.”
Supporting One and All
The FAMILY Act is a strong baseline from which to address these challenges, and could be even stronger. The bill will reach its fullest potential when its leaders include the perspectives of the women of color who have been historically oppressed and the low-income families who see job protection without paycheck protection as a cruel irony. Congress must also incorporate the lessons offered by the legislation’s state-level precedents. The parallel state laws include provisions such as progressive wage replacement (California, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington State), expansive legal definitions of who and what makes a family (especially the inclusion of families by choice in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Oregon), and job protections regardless of employer size (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, New York, Washington State, and Rhode Island).
The bill will reach its fullest potential when its leaders include the perspectives of the women of color who have been historically oppressed and the low-income families who see job protection without paycheck protection as a cruel irony.
Republicans in Congress, alongside Ivanka Trump, have acknowledged that the lack of paid leave is a challenge that needs solutions. This bipartisan support is progress. However, the solutions they propose are not equitable or inclusive.
A strong paid family and medical leave policy is one that includes everyone who works (including self-employed people, domestic workers, and people who work for multiple employers), ensures that workers can afford to take the time to care, provides a meaningful duration of leave, guarantees job protection, covers a wide variety of family members and close relationships, and offers user-friendly ways to find out about these benefits and protections and use them. A strong policy is one whose provisions are guaranteed, not voluntary, and should not impact retirement security in any way except to make it stronger. A strong policy should not rob other family supporting policies of any kind. That’s the kind of policy Congress should consider; and an expanded version of the FAMILY Act will fit the bill.