Katherin Ross Phillips

(WOMENSENEWS)–Her troubles began when a car accident left her disabled in November.

Ever since, her left arm frequently goes numb and her back muscles go into spasms. After the 12 weeks of federally protected unpaid leave expired, she still did not feel up to resuming her job as a security guard at airports, hospitals and other locations.

From that point, things got worse. She wasforced to leave her rent-assisted apartment when her landlord raised her rent to a level she could not afford. Then she was fired from her job for exceeding the paid-leave time limit.

Now she is out of work and moves her three teen-age children and herself among homes of friends and family while she recuperates.

When applying for unemployment or federally subsidized child support (welfare), she was told she had to be able to work.

“I had no income, just money my mom and the father of my children could give me,” she said. In Milwaukee, if an applicant is considered “job ready,” they are no longer eligible for emergency assistance. When applying for federally subsidized child support (welfare), an applicant has to have been looking for a job 30 days before you can get cash assistance and, even if someone is injured, they are often considered “job ready.”

Her first name is Marlo, but she asked that her last name not be used in this article.

When Disability Hurts More

She is one of many women whose daily struggle to maintain work and family lives turns into a losing battle when she becomes seriously disabled.

According to data from the Economic Policy Institute, 31.1 percent of women earned poverty-level wages or less in 2000, far more than the 19.5 percent of men working at the poverty line. Women are also more often single parents, leaving them with more demands on their paychecks and less likely to have fall-backs when their bodies give out. Of the 72.3 million families reported in the 2000 U.S. Census, 7.4 million were run by single mothers versus 2.2 million run by single fathers.

Marlo’s 12 weeks of unpaid leave were guaranteed under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which applies to the birth or adoption of a child; foster care of a child; care of a seriously ill child or the serious illness of a spouse, parent or oneself. While protecting Marlo’s job, the act does not ensure income. And, after 12 weeks, it couldn’t help her hang on to her job.

It’s a safety net that, according to many research and advocacy groups, is far too thin.

Pushing for Paid Leave

Last week, the National Partnership for Women and Families, which drafted the current act and fought for its passage for nine years, renewed its call to U.S. lawmakers to pass paid sick leave legislation this year.

“We have been calling on Congress to address the issue, but we are not calling on Congress to embrace a particular bill,” said Jodi Grant, director of work and family programs at the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit advocacy organization.

Grant says at least one state, California, has enacted model legislation for paid family leave. In 2002, California became the first state to adopt a comprehensive paid family leave law. Paid sick leave is another thing, however. “There is not a state in the country that mandates sick leave for the private sector.”

Adding to the push for more generous leave laws and policies is last week’s report from the Urban Institute, which found that workers like Marlo, or those with the greatest need for paid leave, are the least likely to receive it. According to the report, Getting Time Off: Access to Leave among Working Parents, only 41 percent of current recipients of federally subsidized child support (welfare) had access to paid leave. By contrast 82 percent of parents with incomes that were at least three times the federal poverty line had this access.

Fewer Backups for Low-Income Women

All in all, say researchers and advocates, it means that women receiving federally subsidized child support (welfare) and working at low-wage jobs have fewer backups when they lose their jobs. Not only are they less likely to have any savings to fall back on, they often can’t count on the help of a working spouse during periods of unpaid leave.

“That means that there is not one day they can take off of work and be paid for it,” said Urban Institute researcher Katherin Ross Phillips. “If they or their children are sick, they have to choose between going to work sick or staying home and not receiving pay and maybe losing their job. For low-income workers that is not an option, because they are already living on the edge. People are being forced to make impossible and unfair choices.”

Since the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, 42 percent of those taking leave have been men. But still far more women than men take leave under the act.

“Unfortunately in our society, women are still the primary caregivers,” said Grant, of the National Partnership for Women and Families. “There is still a greater burden on women when it comes to family care giving.”

Many Americans don’t have the option of taking time off work, whether paid or unpaid. In fact, only 3 in 5 U.S. workers actually meet the eligibility criteria of the family-leave act. While both men and women are affected by the consequences of unpaid leave, women, who are more often to be low-income and single mothers, are hardest hit

The report, published in April, confirms 2000 findings by 9to5, National Association of Working Women and echoes the experience of many of the Milwaukee-based organization’s members, including Marlo. Having studied barriers to work for low-wage mothers for more than a decade, 9to5 now presses the message that access to paid sick leave is vital to maintain employment and that paid-leave policies must include even routine illness.

“Even workers with access to other type of paid leave, may not be allowed to take it for a child’s routine illness, because they are often required to give advance notice or wait months before leave is available,” said Ellen Bravo, 9to5’s director. “We need to establish a principle that having a family should not cost you your job. People should not be punished for having a sick child.”

Like the National Partnership, 9to5 is urging elected officials to support legislation such as the Building Secure and Healthy Families Act of 2003 sponsored by Democrats U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts, and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut, expected to be introduced in the next few months, which calls for a minimum of seven paid sick days.

Paid-leave bills have been introduced in 27 other states, including Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Texas. Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico and Oregon have passed measures requiring research into the costs of paid leave.

While paid-leave legislation for low-income workers is the ultimate goal for many activists and researchers, longer job-secured unpaid leave is seen as the least the government can do to help workers keep families intact. Only Washington, D.C., currently allows more than the 12 weeks required by the federal leave act: 19 weeks.

Marianne Sullivan is a New York-based freelance writer who writes frequently on economics and finance.

For more information:

9to5, National Association of Working Women:

Urban Institute–
“Getting Time Off: Access to Leave among Working Parents”
(Adobe PDF format):

National Partnership for Women and Families: