RESPONSE: MAY/JUNE 2019 ISSUE

Paid Leave Helps Families

Paid family and medical leave offers stability to families and supports United Methodist Women’s call for a living wage for all.

Paid Leave Helps Families
United Methodist Women member Lita Santiago holds a sign for a fair living wage at the state capitol in Columbus, Ohio.

Adriana in Chicago fought hard for a $15/hr minimum wage. But when her baby was born, her hourly wage fell to $0 an hour. With no paid leave, she had to return to work within two weeks.

Anne in Minneapolis had a good-paying factory job, except she didn’t have sick time to care for her kids. As a mother of seven, she missed work to care for sick children just six times over the course of a year, but it was enough for her to be fired.

Anne and her children had to move in with her mother to survive. For years she had to settle for lower-paying jobs without paid time to care. In her 50s, Anne finally decided to start over as a personal care attendant, working six days a week to try to get back on her feet.

Staci in Detroit worked for a large telecommunications firm, where she got good performance reviews and promotions. But when her 4-year-old daughter had a stroke and Staci insisted on being at her side in the hospital, she wound up having to rely on public assistance after losing her job and her home.

For all of these women, having access to paid sick days and paid family and medical leave is a matter of job security and family stability. What they want is simple: to be there for loved ones in times of need and to provide financially for those loved ones. Paid time to care can make the difference—not just for the short haul but for long-term success. It can help provide the foundation for families to avoid debt, retain assets and build wealth.

Background

The United States remains an outlier in the world when it comes to time to care. Only the United States and Papua New Guinea fail to guarantee any paid leave. Most working people will need to care for themselves or for loved ones at some point, but only 17 percent of the private sector workforce has access to paid family leave through an employer, and less than 40 percent have employer-provided temporary disability benefits according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not surprisingly, low-wage workers are the least likely to have any such time with pay, but even workers earning a living wage can see their income drop well below what they need to live. Making $0 an hour because you need time for caregiving responsibilities is particularly hard when you have no cushion of savings or family members who can afford to help.

Being a good parent or following doctor’s orders doesn’t just cost people their pay—for many, it means loss of a job. Overall, 1 in 7 workers has lost a job to recover from illness or care for a family member. Because women still bear major responsibility for caregiving, working mothers take an even harder hit. Almost 1 in 5 has lost a job due to sickness or caring for a sick child, both statistics according to a 2013 Oxfam report.

Racial discrimination compounds the problem for low-paid workers of color, who traditionally earn less than white workers and have less access to paid family and medical leave. For these workers, income or job loss can mean a deeper plunge into eco-nomic turmoil.

The recent federal government shutdown gave us a sharp reminder about how many people, even in decent jobs, live paycheck to paycheck. We saw people worry about losing their home, cutting back on needed medications and relying on food banks after just a few weeks without pay. At least these workers felt the public was on their side, and they knew they would eventually be paid. This isn’t true for most low-wage workers. They find themselves in a painful cycle: lose a job due to care responsibilities, get another one as quickly as possible, one which also is likely to lack flexibility or pay for caregiving time. That leads to another job loss and gaps in employment, which aggravate the problem. The ensuing debt adds to credit problems, which create additional barriers to employment. Soon a woman in this situation hears accusations of having a “bad work ethic” and being “unreliable” and financially irresponsible.

It’s clear that unequal access to paid leave exacerbates inequity and reinforces gender and racial stereotypes that make it harder for the individual to obtain a living-wage job.

Solutions

Fortunately, there are policies that can make a significant difference. One critical piece is affordable family and medical leave. Thanks to the work of broad and diverse coalitions in our Family Values @ Work network, six states and the District of Columbia have already passed bills that will bring paid leave to 30 million people. More wins are on the horizon. Driving these campaigns are people who have lived the harsh reality of zero weeks of paid leave—individuals who became activists when they realized that what they could not change on their own they could change if they worked together.

These activists are paving the way for a national policy, called the FAMILY Act, or Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act. Sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro, the FAMILY Act follows the lead of the states that have successfully implemented paid leave programs that work for employees and business owners alike. The program rests on a sustainable and cost-effective funding base, a social insurance model that pools small contributions from employees and employers.  This allows workers to draw a significant portion of their wages during the time they need to heal or care for a loved one. The bill would cover up to 12 weeks to welcome a new child, care for a serious personal or family illness or deal with needs arising from a military deployment.

The experience in the early states has led to recent improvements in policies that we expect to see added to the federal bill as well to make it more effective for those in jobs that pay lower wages, for communities of color and for part-time workers. These include higher wage replacement rates for lower-paid workers, job protection for all leave-takers and an inclusive definition of family that reflects family realities in the United States today.

How United Methodist Women members can take action

We’re heartened to see the interest and commitment of groups like United Methodist Women, with whom we’re partnering to advocate for paid family and medical leave. Here are a variety of ways for members to take action:

  • Attend United Methodist Women’s Mission u events, where attendees will learn more about the issue as part of the study What About Our Money? Visit United Methodist Women's Paid Family Leave web page.
  • Sign up to be connected to the Living Wage for All campaign at unitedmethodistwomen.org/action, and visit the Family Values @ Work website at familyvaluesatwork.org. If you live in a state with an ongoing campaign, we will connect you.
  • Contact your congressional representative. Say what the presence or absence of paid leave has meant in your life and why they should champion it. As members of United Methodist Women, share how your faith also calls you to demand paid leave for all.
  • Put together a group from your congregation to share stories, write your congressional representatives, draft Letters to the Editor and plan other activities.
  • Arrange a screening of the documentary Zero Weeks, the same video to be shown at Mission u.

Your voices can help us get across the finish line. Winning paid leave for all will be an enormous boost to the fight to guarantee living wages and strong families.


Ellen Bravo and Wendy Chun-Hoon are co-directors of Family Values @ Work, a national network of coalitions in 27 states fighting for, and winning, paid leave for all.

Posted or updated: 4/30/2019 12:00:00 AM
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