Women’s Groups And Workers Lobby For Paid Sick And Family Leave

WASHINGTON–Working women and groups representing them took their case for paid sick and family leave to Capitol Hill on July 30.  They drew support from Senate Labor Committee Democrats, but the legislation – thanks to potential GOP filibusters and a jammed congressional schedule after the August recess – may go nowhere in this Congress.

That didn’t stop the National Partnership for Women and Families and other witnesses from arguing for legislation mandating paid sick leave for almost all workers.

The issue is important not just to working women, who now are 48 percent of the labor force, but also kids and working men, witnesses said.  The U.S. is one of a handful of nations without paid family and medical leave.  None of the others are industrialized powers.

Instead, the U.S. tells larger employers to grant 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave, but millions of workers are ineligible for it or – more frequently – can’t afford it.

That means that “for too long, we have left women and families in search for solutions on their own,” to family and medical leave problems “rather than adopting solutions that work for the nation,” National Partnership Vice President Victoria Shabo testified.

Unions, the National Partnership and the Coalition of Labor Union Women all pushed hard for final enactment of the Family and Medical Leave Act.  Congress passed it, after a decade-plus campaign, in 1993.

But Shabo testified that just over 40 percent of all workers, or about 90 million, cannot legally take unpaid leave under the 21-year-old law.  If they take leave, “they risk losing their jobs and their health benefits,” Shabo reminded senators.

Even legal unpaid leave hits workers in the wallet or pocketbook, she added. “The share of workers who said they needed and did not take (unpaid) leave doubled from 2000 to 2012,” Shabo explained.  “The most common reason provided by workers who needed FMLA leave but did not take it was that they couldn’t take time off without some income” coming in.

“The urgent needs of families, compelling public demand, strong employer testimonials and positive data from states and cities that adopted family friendly policies all signal the need” for paid leave, Shabo said.

Jeannine Sato, director of a nurse home visiting program for newborns established by Duke University in Durham, N.C., brought home the contrast for individual workers and families by telling what happened to her, her husband and her kids after their birth.  The first was born when she worked for a social service agency that refused to grant her unpaid leave.  After that, and before the second child came, she found the Duke job.

“Going back to work so quickly cuts bonding time with children and can make meeting breastfeeding goals very difficult,” Sato said. “Ironically, my husband’s company, which was clearly exempt from FMLA because it had fewer than 20 employees, still cheerfully offered him four weeks of unpaid leave to care for our child while I went back to work. He brought our daughter in every day so I could breastfeed her over lunch.

“Despite going back to work so quickly and all of the sacrifices that it involved, I still ended up going several weeks without pay, as did my husband.  It was a tremendous financial struggle for us to reduce our income at a time when we faced the many expenses that come with a newborn. We had birth center co-pays, supplies, hundreds of diapers, a mortgage and bills. However, we felt fortunate that at least one of us could be home with our daughter for those crucial first weeks of her life.

“It dawned on me during this time that many women don’t have the ‘luxury’ of any maternity leave, paid or unpaid.  Most states do not have short-term disability, and many Americans have, and no guaranteed sick time, vacation or maternity leave.  Some mothers go back to work only one week after having a child because they can’t afford to miss a paycheck. It makes me so sad that Americans would allow their fellow workers – our mothers – to be treated that way.”

All that prompted Sato to find a family friendly employer.  That’s both ethical and makes business sense, she said. “Happy, supported workers are loyal, productive workers for their employers.  Yet many businesses fail to realize that.”  The Duke job fit, she added.

When Sato said she was pregnant, “my boss congratulated me and told me to let him know what I needed.”  She got 12 weeks of leave, flexible work from home and three weeks of pay after she used up her sick leave and vacation time.  And Sato didn’t risk losing her job, though they still had to cut back on spending since part of her leave was unpaid.

“I was recovered, rested and ready to come back to work, and I never missed a beat. My anxiety was much lower and I was a better parent.  Breastfeeding was still hard, but I was better able to manage it at home those first weeks.  I will be forever grateful for this support.”

Her own experience and her work for Duke led Sato to campaign for paid leave.  “I have witnessed first-hand how little support many parents receive from their employers…Some of the parents we serve are forced to go back to work as early as one week after their child is born because they simply can’t afford to stay home without pay or risk losing their job.

“I cannot impress upon you enough the cascading harm this potentially can cause to the mother’s health, the babies’ health and the overall well-being of the family and community.  We must ensure that all moms and dads, all workers no matter who they work for, have access to paid family leave, not only for new parents, but for families taking care of critically ill children, or other relatives, or recovering from their own serious illnesses.  This is a human issue.

“Investments in family leave and early childhood are returned to us 10-fold by a more stable, successful and prosperous society.  Navigating the stressful patchwork system of maternity leave has changed my life,” she said.