Time to Expand the Family and Medical Leave Act
By Marilyn Watkins
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act turned 21 this February. 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.
Women now make up half the workforce. Ever growing numbers of workers are providing care for older family members, and more than two-thirds of Washington State school kids have all their parents in the labor force. But women still earn far from equal pay – even with the same qualifications and in the same jobs as men.
Part of the problem is that 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% have paid family leave benefits.
Those statistics mean that people are forced to go to work when their child or parent is sick, or lose needed family income. Too many women go back to work a few days following childbirth, or miss the final weeks of their parent’s life.
Washington State is helping lead the movement for policy change. Seattle’s Paid Sick and Safe Leave Law, which PSARA members helped pass, has been protecting working families 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, HB1313 based on the Seattle sick leave policy has passed the House. Unfortunately, the bill faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate. The Senate is more likely to pass SB6307, overturning 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 off for 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 need to hear from us loud and often that we expect them to act.
Take Action: Call your state Senator today at 1.800.562.6000. Ask them to support HB 1313 (Paid Sick and Safe Leave) and oppose SB 6307 (preempting local minimum wage and sick leave laws).
Marilyn Watkins is Policy Director of Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle, and chairs the Washington Work and Family Coalition and a member of PSARA.