WHAT CAN IDO?
Recognize: Caregiving is about more than just me and my family.
Reframe: I have a responsibility to advocate for under-resourced families and to help other women so we all can thrive.
Be an Advocate for Paid Parental Leave
We know we have a growing class divide in our country. Paid leave may well be a powerful antidote.
The United States is one of two developed countries that does not offer government-sponsored paid maternity leave. Sure, the Family and Medical Leave Act gives nearly 40 percent of workers access to (unpaid) leave, but the vast majority don’t take the leave offered to them because they can’t afford the loss of income.276 As a result, nearly 65 percent of workers who qualify do not take the full leave they are eligible for under FMLA277 and over one-quarter of new mothers take no more than two weeks off after the birth of a child.
What does that mean over the long term? It means these already under-resourced women are exhausted and can’t function properly in their jobs. It means they often eventually lose those jobs or have to quit because they literally cannot afford to keep working. One of the fastest-growing groups of stay-at-home moms are those below the poverty line. In fact, today over 30 percent of mothers who are unemployed are those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. These women have made it clear they want to work, but they need support to enable them to do so. Paid parental leave is the place to start to ensure they have the foundation they need to stay engaged in the workforce.
Of those women who do have paid leave, for most it’s the luck of location. If you live in California, New Jersey, New York, or Rhode Island, you can get some measure of compensation after the birth (or adoption) of your child, but it is only half of your salary and only for about six weeks. In 2002, California became the first state to guarantee paid family leave, followed by New Jersey in 2008, Rhode Island in 2013, and New York in 2016. While the California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island programs are all in effect already, New York’s will take effect on January 1, 2018. 278 Washington state has also passed a paid family leave law, but the implementation has been delayed.
In other countries, paid leave is funded through taxes, which means the entire country is supporting mothers as they give birth to the next generation. In each of three states that currently offer it, the paid family leave program is part of the state’s existing temporary disability insurance system. Employees finance the paid family leave program through payroll deductions. So the leave is paid for by the individual worker herself—with the help of her employer if she is lucky enough to work for one of the few companies that do offer paid leave. But leave is not financed by the population as whole.
In most cases, the companies that do offer paid leave are bigger, more established firms. Deloitte, PWC, Coca-Cola, and many of the other Fortune 500 companies have offered paid leave for years, typically in the six-week to three-month range. Recently, the tech industry has been garnering headlines for offering paid parental leaves of up to a year. A nice gig if you can get it, but remember the numbers: Only 13 percent of private-sector workers have access to paid leave in the United States.279 So, well-educated, well-paid mothers and fathers who work for big companies have it good. The rest are in dire straits.
This has to change. We need a national policy. Sadly, the powers that be in Congress have little will to make progress on this issue (or on many other issues, for that matter). Because of congressional gridlock, local municipalities are beginning to take up the call to arms regarding paid parental leave. In Washington, D.C., in 2015, city council member Elissa Silverman introduced the Universal Paid Leave Act. It provides sixteen weeks of paid leave funded largely by a 1 percent payroll tax on private-sector employers in the city. The law continues to languish and has yet to pass.
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In June 2016, San Francisco voters passed a proposed paid leave plan to require employers with more than twenty employees to cover the difference between what the state pays and the individual’s full salary. Beginning in January 2017, companies who operate in San Francisco will be required to offer their employees the additional 45 percent that is currently not covered under the state’s disability law, which currently covers 55 percent for six weeks. Full pay for six weeks is not enough, but it is far better than what the vast majority of workers have.
These are just two examples of local governments trying to solve the problem our national or state governments refuse to address. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s obviously not nearly enough. We need an army of one-issue activists.
The good news is we’ve already got one in the making. In 2006, Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner published the Motherhood Manifesto, in which they wrote, “Despite all the media chatter about the so-called Opt-Out Revolution—and all the hand-wringing about whether working moms are good for kids—women, and mothers, are in the workplace to stay. Yet public policy and workplace structures have yet to catch up.”280
Joan and Kristin didn’t stop there. They recognized the need for collective action, so they gathered a team together and founded MomsRising, a non-partisan group determined to change public policy for families in this country. Since inception, MomsRising has garnered more than 1 million members who collectively advocate to improve how caregivers are treated in this country. Now MomsRising has partnered with PL+US (Paid Leave for the U.S.), a grassroots organization with one goal in mind: to secure universal paid leave in this country.
Join MomsRising and PL+US to help make a difference for all families. While you are at it, lobby your city, state, and federal politicians to ensure they understand the importance of this issue. Paid parental leave for both women and men is the single biggest way we can enable women to stay in the workforce. When fathers take paternity leave, their partners are less likely to quit their jobs and the dads are more likely to be engaged with their kids over the long haul. Good for children, good for women, good for men, good for the workplace. Seems so obvious, doesn’t it?