BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–In recent weeks, paid family leave has acquired heightened significance, particularly in Massachusetts, where Republican Jane Swift recently became the first female governor of Massachusetts and the first U.S. governor to give birth while in office.
Her historic governorship has supporters, critics and journalists paying close attention to Swift’s positions on family and women’s issues, especially paid leave, and she is expected to concentrate on these areas in order to attract moderate voters to her camp for the 2002 elections.
Gov. Swift’s parenthood and her daunting challenge of being a mother of newborn twins while running the state provide a vivid portrait–intensified by the governor’s fame of course–of what many women endure when they combine paid employment and parenthood.
Uncompensated family care costs women seniority in their organizations, career advancement, and, in the long run, earning potential. When a woman must temporarily leave her job to care for a seriously ill child, to bond with her newborn or newly adopted child, or to help an aging parent follow a strict medical regimen and prevent costly institutionalization, she is punished for providing family care.
Paid family and medical leave is an important first step to ending the punishment of women’s family care and to begin redressing the pay inequity. In some instances, workers already have access to leave, but it is unpaid. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees 12 weeks of job-protected leave in the event of an employee’s non-work-related illness, the illness of a family member, or the birth or adoption of a child. Yet leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act is unpaid and many people are unable to afford to take leave without wage replacement.
A recent report by the Department of Labor states that 77.6 percent of the 3.5 million people who needed leave but did not take it between January 1999 and September 2000 reported they did not do so because they could not afford to go without pay. This figure is up 12 percentage points from 1996.
The Department of Labor also reported that when organizations voluntarily offer paid leave, men are more likely to receive it than women, but women take leave more than men. Women are disproportionately going without pay to offer family care.
The Family and Medical Leave Act is further limited because only employees who work for organizations with 50 or more workers are eligible to receive benefits. That means that only 10.8 percent of all private sector establishments are covered by the act, leaving 58.3 percent of the national workforce ineligible for its benefits. Only one-third of non-covered establishments offer leave packages comparable to those offered by establishments that are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Federal Bill Would Extend Leave to Companies With 25 Employees
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle has proposed important legislation to expand Family Medical Leave Act eligibility to employees in companies with 25 or more employees and provide some wage compensation. Family leave advocates praise the Right Start Act of 2001 as an attempt to expand leave eligibility and benefits and hope that such movement at the national level will further broaden the opportunity for universal paid leave at the state level.
Across the country, advocates are successfully building support for these critical initiatives. During the 2001 legislative session, 19 states are considering proposals for paid leave. Even some states, such as New Jersey and California, which already have temporary disability insurance programs, are considering expanding them to include family leave. The existing programs provide paid leave in the event of a non-work-related illness.
Swift gave birth to twins Tuesday night. She had been running her office from her hospital bed. As her family’s primary breadwinner, her current situation should help her appreciate the need for her to support paid family leave.
Two paid leave bills are currently before the Massachusetts Legislature. The first, Baby UI, uses unemployment insurance to provide partial wage replacement for new mothers and fathers following the birth or adoption of a child for up to 12 weeks of a job-protected leave. A worker would be able to receive 66 percent of her or his average weekly wage, capped at $548, or 57.5 percent of the statewide average weekly wage.
The second, the Family and Employment Security Act, provides a worker with partial wage replacement (also 66 percent of a worker’s average weekly wage capped at $548), while on a 12-week job-protected leave not only for her own or his own illness, but also for a family member’s illness or following the birth or adoption of a child. This bill combines the best practices of temporary disability insurance programs and the Family and Medical Leave Act into one plan. Both bills are currently in committee and rulings are expected by the end of this month.
In Massachusetts, Jane Swift Said to Consider Two Paid Leave Bills
Gov. Swift reportedly is considering the two paid leave bills and may be preparing her own plan for family leave. Although paid leave advocates hope her new leadership will allow for positive dialogue around this issue, they are keenly aware of her predecessor, Paul Cellucci’s, opposition to proposed paid parental leave legislation last year.
Advocates of paid leave hope that, at the very least, Swift’s attention to paid leave will compel her colleagues at the State House to consider it as well. For too long, many legislators have deferred to the business lobby, rejecting paid leave plans with the excuse that they are too expensive for business.
The reality, however, is that family leave is not a new cost. As a society, we all are already paying for it: Families pay for it in lost wages; businesses pay for it in lost productivity and costs associated with advertising, hiring and training new employees; states pay for it in unemployment insurance and public assistance. Paid leave policy creates a systematic and fair way to pay for leave without overburdening anyone.
Paid leave advocates are encouraged by the attention Swift’s governorship has drawn to their cause. They believe that the urgency for this initiative will increase in Massachusetts and across the country until the adoption of substantial legislation providing wage compensation for job-protected leaves.
It is time for lawmakers, business leaders and lobbyists to recognize that family care is no longer a private family issue. In an era when half of all workers are women, society can no longer assume women will be able to provide uncompensated family care. We need public policies to address the serious burden facing workers trying to balance their economic needs and their family responsibilities.
Paige Whittaker is the policy coordinator for the Women’s Statewide Legislative Network in Boston. The network has led the paid family and medical leave campaign in Massachusetts for the last four years.
For more information, visit:
Right Start Act of 2001:
House version: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c107:H.R.265.IH:
Senate version: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c107:S.18.IS:
Women’s Statewide Legislative Network: