National Paid Family Leave: 2016 Needs a Champion

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Credit: US Department of Labor on Flickr, under Creative Commons

Congresswoman Rose DeLauro was part of a team that introduced the Healthy Families Act in 2013, which would have provided up to seven paid work days a year for family leave.

LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)–In 2016, the United States deserves a presidential candidate who will make paid family leave a priority on the campaign platform.

That candidate can take over from President Barack Obama who advocated for paid family leave in this year’s State of the Union speech.

"Today, we’re the only advanced country on earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers," Obama said. "Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave. Forty-three million. Think about that. And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home. So I’ll be taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own."

It’s fine for states to adopt leave laws, but the United States needs more. We need one national policy that is consistent for workers everywhere, not different state by state, or city by city.

California is a model that works, but it needs to be fine-tuned to include: replacement salary, elimination of retaliation, longer time off from work and efforts to increase public awareness of its benefits.

The national discussion about paid family leave has been escalating for several years.

Since the U.S. has no such thing nationally, local and state governments have become the arenas for action.

California Steps Up

First to step up was California. In 2002, the state’s legislature passed the Paid Family Leave Act, which provides as much as six weeks off from work, on partial salary, for employees to care for sick family members. The law was implemented in 2004.

In 2011, however, some disconcerting findings about the California program emerged in a study by the California Field Poll. Despite what appeared to be successful legislation, the study showed that 43 percent of workers weren’t aware of the program and very few took advantage of it. Surveyed women and men indicated that salary replacement was insufficient and workers feared both job loss and retaliation for taking time off.

New Jersey and Rhode Island followed California with their own programs for state residents. Cities as well as states are taking the initiative to legislate paid family leave. Numerous jurisdictions are offering their own employees paid leave.

Most social legislation in the U.S. has originated through active organizing and coalition building from the grassroots level.

Recent efforts in the city of Philadelphia resulted from a diverse group of organizations that formed the Coalition for Healthy Families and Workplace. After years of effort, the bill was passed on the third attempt.

When an October 2014 California Field Poll showed worker awareness of paid family leave was continuing to fall–to 36 percent from 43 percent in 2011–the California Work and Family Coalition took action. They organized to increase workforce awareness through outreach and education. Joining with the California Women’s Policy Summit they are collaborating now with State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson to pass legislation that will protect workers from retaliation.

A lesson has been learned from the California experience. Bills aimed at creating major change should be written to meet the reality of the workplace. Passing legislation is not the end point of the legislative process; bills must be followed for their implementation and effectiveness.

So far, efforts to create a national family paid leave program have failed.

In 2013, Congresswoman Rose DeLauro and Sen. Tom Harkin introduced the Healthy Families Act (HR 1286). The legislation would have provided up to seven paid work days a year for family leave. The bill was not enacted and the conservative Republican majority now in Congress leaves little hope for passage this year.

Fresh Opportunity

Nonetheless, with the 2016 presidential election beginning with individuals testing their candidacies, there is an opportunity to reach out to the millions of working women and their families who may potentially need paid leave to care for their families.

The constituency is there. The Department of Labor reports that "more than 30 million of America’s working families have young children."

The 2016 election could be the moment to connect to women and men about work-related issues as well as equal pay. If a candidate runs on a paid family leave platform and wins, this could send a message to Congress that the time has finally come to enact paid leave legislation.

Paid family leave is good for the economy as well as families, according to research. Yet, no major candidate has made paid family leave a presidential election priority. A work/life agenda will draw out voters. Child care, maternity leave, flextime and paid family leave matter in the workplace as well as pay. People vote their pocket books, but they will vote for family security, too.

All this could mean the time is right for a female president.

Studies by the Pew Research Center show that "73 percent of adult Americans . . . think the U.S. will elect a female president in their lifetimes." This data crosses gender and party affiliations.

The gender gap has consistently proved a factor in electoral campaigns. The Center for American Women and Politics defines the gap as "the difference in the percentage of men and women voting for a given candidate." Women and men have different attitudes toward public policy. According to the center, women are more likely to favor a more activist role for government and support programs to guarantee health care and basic social services.

A family work agenda, including a national paid family leave program as a campaign platform priority, could speed the way to electing the first female president. The need is there. As a nation, we are ready.

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