Credit: Craig Forsyth on Flickr, under Creative Commons
(WOMENSENEWS)– Two weeks after giving birth to my first baby last March, I was still struggling to figure out breastfeeding; bursting into tears several times a day as my hormones raged; and could count the number of postpartum showers I’d taken on one hand. I was in no condition to go to work, and thankfully I didn’t have to.
But millions of other women are not so privileged.
Nearly a quarter of mothers who took maternity leave in 2012 returned to work after less than 10 days, according to a recent study. A Texas MomsRising member writes, “I returned to work 14 days [after] delivering my child because I could not afford not to work. I wish I could have spent more time at home with my child. [ . . . ] The only time I got to see her was at night after a full day of work and full time load of college courses.”
Two weeks ago, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced a bill that could put an end to the intolerable choices so many working families are forced to make when they need time away from work to care for their families or themselves.
The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act) would create a national paid family and medical leave insurance program enabling workers to take up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave from work to recover from a serious illness, care for a sick family member or bond with a new baby. The FAMILY Act would cover almost all workers, providing 66 percent of wages, up to a cap of $4,000 per month. It would be entirely funded by very small contributions from employers and employees and administered through a new Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave.
The insurance model of the program – which builds on the successes of similarly structured programs in California and New Jersey, and soon Rhode Island– means that employers can offer their employees paid leave without having to shoulder the entire cost of this benefit. As a result, the bill has significant appeal for businesses, particularly small businesses, the constituency that opponents of fair workplace policies often claim to represent.
Workers desperately need a program like this. At present, only 12 percent of private sector workers have paid family leave, and fewer than 40 percent have access to disability insurance for personal medical leave. But these figures are far worse for lower-wage workers, only 4 percent of whom have access to paid family leave.
Our current “system” is not working. About half of workers in the United States are eligible for unpaid, job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which was passed 20 years ago. Although some workers are able to use accumulated sick leave and vacation to help replace lost wages during unpaid leaves, many lower-wage workers have no access to any type of paid leave. Almost half of all workers making less than $550 a week receive no paid personal leave, sick leave, family leave or vacation at all. In 2012 more than half of workers taking family or medical leave whose earnings are below the median family income reported losing all their income while on leave, according to a U.S. Department of Labor survey,
Lack of Options
For many workers, even short leaves are not an option. More than 3 million workers report that they needed leave but did not take it because they could not afford to go without pay. Others, including the 50 percent of workers who aren’t covered by the FMLA because they work for small businesses, haven’t been in their jobs for a year or are part time, don’t take leave because they won’t have a job to return to if they do.
Sometimes foregoing a leave is impossible: if a worker is too sick to return to her job or if care for an elderly parent or child is unaffordable or unavailable, quitting may be the only option. In fact, according to a U.S. Census report, 1-in-5 women list their chosen “leave arrangement” as quitting their jobs. Among moms with less than a high school education, half quit their jobs.
Let’s be clear: quitting your job is not a leave arrangement; or at least it shouldn’t be. For women who can afford it and prefer it, leaving the paid work force is a valid choice. But far too many women are left with no other option; either their jobs won’t be there for them when they return from leave or the cost of child care is unmanageable. For these mothers, quitting a job is a loss and not a luxury.
Recently, at an event celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Family Values @ Work network, Gloria Steinem declared, “The feminist movement has always been more about the sticky floor of the pink collar ghetto than the glass ceiling.” When Gillibrand and DeLauro introduced the FAMILY Act a couple of days later, they gave fuel to just such a feminist movement; one committed to lifting up all women, and particularly lower-wage working women, as they strive to support their families.
Liz Ben-Ishai is a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). Her work focuses on job quality issues for low-wage workers.
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