By Carolyn Treiss
What do a beautiful newborn baby and an old woman with dementia have in common? They both need lots of care and both underscore the hypocrisy of a society that claims to place family values above all else, but does precious little to support policies that would actually make taking care of babies, elders and ourselves economically feasible, practical and humane. It is time to change that.
More than two decades ago, Connecticut led the way in implementing a system of (unpaid) family and medical leave that was essentially a jobs protection act. It assured workers the security of knowing they could not be fired if they had to take extended leave to care for themselves, a child or a parent. With passage of the Parental and Medical Leave Act, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to have such legislation; in subsequent years, the bill was expanded and became the blueprint for landmark federal law. U.S. Rep. John Larson, while still a state senator, was instrumental in the bill’s passage.
Now, recognizing that FMLA has become a universally accepted right for millions of workers in Connecticut and nationwide, the state legislature is considering a bill for paid family and medical leave that, if passed, would be the most comprehensive in the nation. The bill’s sponsors rightly believe that paid family leave – paid for through an employee-funded pool managed by the state Department of Labor – makes eminent sense.
The Permanent Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) and the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund (CWEALF), two organizations that worked on the original FMLA legislation, are teaming up in leading the charge on this expanded version of family and medical leave, because women are still the primary caregivers in times of need. To be sure, paid leave would benefit everyone, regardless of gender. But the reality is that too many women of childbearing age see their careers derailed just as they are taking off. Women in their mid-20s to early 40s are the demographic employers seek most often, and yet the biological clock has its own imperatives. And what of women at the prime of their careers who must increasingly act on behalf of aging parents, or who suddenly find themselves dealing with an illness of their own (or that of a spouse)? It’s hard to “lean in” when there’s no employer-sponsored provision to lean against.
That’s why we are co-chairing, along with CWEALF, the Campaign for Paid Family Leave, a coalition of nearly 50 organizations that support paid leave (see them here). In August of last year, the Campaign for Paid Family Leave put forth a series of recommendations (read them here) that are more expansive than those made later by a legislative task force charged with studying the issue.
As with so many progressive acts, including Social Security and Medicare, FMLA was initially met with opposition in some corners. And so will paid family and medical leave be met, until some myths surrounding it are debunked.
There are those who say that paid family and medical leave will be too expensive for business to implement and maintain. In fact, we are calling for a system funded entirely by employee contributions and administered by the Department of Labor, with very little to no costs to businesses.
Others fear it’s another example of government “over-reach” into workers’ pockets. In fact, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that just one-quarter of one percent of a worker’s earnings is needed to fund a plan that provides adequate replacement wages, should they be needed. And since no one plans to get cancer, for example, doesn’t this kind of safety net make sense, just as other kinds of insurance protect us against the unforeseen?
Another common misconception is that paid family and medical leave has failed in other states.
In reality, similar programs in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have been well received, and polling shows that paid family and medical leave in California has had either a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on productivity, profitability, performance, turnover, and employee morale.
Another myth commonly promulgated is that the gender-based wage gap is unaffected by the lack of paid leave. For some perspective, let’s look abroad to three countries that are culturally akin to our own: Sweden, France and Ireland all have significantly lower wage gaps than the U.S., but also have much better leave policies, (Sweden offers 56 weeks’ leave at 80 percent of salary; France gives up to 42, and Ireland gives 26 weeks paid leave).
Ultimately, we are making it possible for workers to continue to earn a wage while caring for those they love, without relying on employers’ benevolence. The right for women to be effective mothers and productive employees, and the right for men to be loyal workers and devoted fathers – is one that should apply to everyone, not just the lucky few who work for companies with progressive policies. Paid family and medical leave puts the control where it belongs – with the worker, who happens also to be a devoted daughter, a reliable son, a responsible parent, a loyal grandchild, a loving sibling or a concerned spouse.
The bottom line for us is this: Are we in the United States comfortable with being ranked with the likes of Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea when it comes to our treatment of women and their families? Along with the U.S., those three countries are the only ones that offer no paid leave to mothers and fathers who have just had – or adopted – a baby. One is hard-pressed to think of any other standard (e.g. GDP, research and development, human rights) where this is the company we’d gladly keep. So why is it OK to be like those countries when it comes to this one very important category which has direct bearing on a family’s economic security? Isn’t it time we implemented paid leave – a cornerstone of family-friendly workplace policies – or else stopped pretending we actually hold the family sacrosanct?
Carolyn Treiss is executive director of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.