When Will the Senate Get Serious About Paid Family Leave?
Before fleeing town for their five week vacation, a handful of Senators paid a little attention to the startling fact that most U.S. women cannot count on single day of paid leave when they have a baby. Practically all other countries allow women several months to recover from childbirth before returning to work and provide some income replacement during this time as well. Many countries also afford new fathers paid leave too.
Not so in the United States, where a scant 12% of workers have access to paid leave from their employers, and half the private sector workforce doesn’t even qualify for unpaid leave, under the Family Medical Leave Act.
A few hours before the annual stampede to the airport, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee was called to order. The hearing room was packed, but many seats designated for the committee members remained empty. Not a single Republican Senator attended. Their absence spoke volumes.
Senators Kay Hagen (D-NC), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) spoke of the urgent need to keep workers attached to their jobs, not just for the birth or adoption of new family members, but also for older workers, who may be caring for aging parents or a sick spouse. Paid leave serves many interests—workers can take time to be treated for an illness of their own, or recover from a serious injury without losing their jobs. Some portion of their income can continue, even if they are at a child’s hospital bedside, or moving an in-law into a long term care residence. Working men and women don’t have to face the harrowing decision of putting their job before a sick or suffering loved one.
Senator Al Franken (D-MN), formerly of Saturday Night Live, cracked a joke about the U.S.’s chances of enacting a national paid leave program before the only other outlier nation vying for the title of lone hold-out: Papua New Guinea.
Significant time was spent discussing the benefits paid family leave could bring to businesses. While driving down the cost of finding, hiring and training new workers to replace those who left, companies with paid family leave enjoy increased employee morale and productivity. Investors reward these employers. Sen. Hagen testified that when Fortune 500 companies announce the implementation of a paid leave policy, their stock prices rise. Rising profitability means paid leave is as good for employers’ bottom line as it is for employees’ economic security.
The panel of witnesses laid out the facts that make paid leave so overdue. The birth of a child is the single most expensive thing that happens to a family. When mothers can take paid time off after birth, they are more likely to come back to work, and return more quickly, often to the same employer. These women will go on to earn higher wages than those who must step out of the workforce altogether. They are less likely to suffer depression and anxiety, and more likely to share caregiving duties with dads, if dads have paid leave. Infant mortality is reduced, and both the baby’s and the mother’s health is improved.
Modern families cannot make it financially without mothers’ incomes, because women with children are bringing home 44% of household earnings, and are either the primary or co-breadwinner in two-thirds of all families. Senator Murray noted that paid family leave makes it 39% less likely that a woman will ever have to depend upon public assistance. Taken as a whole, the hearing made the case that a national paid leave program would be less costly to the nation, more profitable for the employer, and more secure for working men and women and their families.
While the hearing was underway, the Twitterverse was not only paying attention but using the hearing to energize their own work, recognize legislators, and in some cases, spur on state paid leave efforts.
#paidleave ensures working moms don't face choice btwn paycheck & caring for a newborn or sick child, empowers them to pursue opportunities.— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) July 30, 2014
Keeping track of the testimony and the tweets simultaneously was no mean feat—but everyone got a break when the committee members had to run to the floor of the Senate for a couple of votes!
The Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, or FAMILY Act, which would create a national paid leave system for all workers has been introduced, but is still struggling to find enough support to bring it to the voting stage. The mid-term elections provide a great opportunity to inject it into the conversation – candidates want your votes and are more receptive now if they are running for election or trying to hold on to their current office. It will take a public outcry to get this passed – only public pressure can make it happen. Until then, we will be a country that doesn’t guarantee a woman a single day off even to give birth.