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Work-Family Policy: Before, During and After Mother’s Day

Amy Traub

Mother’s Day won’t arrive until Sunday, but the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is already looking beyond it. And rightly so: this morning’s committee hearing, “Beyond Mother’s Day: Helping the Middle Class Balance Work and Family”  takes an expansive view of how public policy and business practices succeed and fail to support the important work that mothers, fathers and other caregivers do to sustain their families. “A secure family,” as Committee Chair Tom Harkin announced at the start of the hearing, “is a very important piece of the American dream for our middle class. This means more than financial security. It means having a good family life and being able to spend time together.  It means being able to care for your children and your parents when they need you, and to know they are well-taken care of when you can’t be with them.”  

Ann O’Leary, of the Center for the Next Generation in San Francisco, framed the issue powerfully: family work patterns are changing as the vast majority of families depend on the earned incomes of mothers; the needs of children are changing as they increasingly face health and educational challenges that demand greater time and attention from parents; and the demographics of our society are changing to leave working people with increased responsibilities to care for ailing and elderly parents; America’s workplace policies have not kept pace.

Workers and their families need paid sick days to protect their health and economic security, explained Judith Lichtman of the National Partnership for Women and Families. Two out of three low-wage workers in the U.S. – the employees who can least afford to miss a paycheck – do not have a single paid sick day to recover from illness or take care of sick child or relative. These workers must choose between losing a day’s pay or coming to work sick, endangering their own health and the public. Many low-wage workers even risk losing their jobs and health coverage if they call in sick. According to one survey, one in six Americans says that they or a family member have been fired, suspended, punished, or threatened by an employer for missing work due to illness. The result is a more fearful and precarious low-wage labor force, just one illness away from slipping into poverty.

An excellent first step would be the Healthy Families Act, which would enable working people to earn up to seven paid sick days a year to recover from illness, care for a sick family member, visit a doctor or seek assistance related to domestic violence. The bill, introduced as stand-along legislation as (S. 984/H.R. 1876), is also incorporated into Senator Harkin’s Rebuild America Act.

Paid family and medical leave is another critical policy component. The Family and Medical Leave Act,  passed in 1993, was intended to provide some security to families facing a sudden illness, providing family care, or welcoming a new child. The law guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave to Americans working at businesses with 50 or more employees. Employers cannot replace workers on FMLA leave or retaliate against them in any way. Since its implementation, workers have used FMLA leave more than 100 million times. But four in ten American workers are not eligible because they work for smaller companies or have not been on the job long enough, and millions of Americans cannot afford to take leave without pay. Because only a small proportion of employees receive paid leave benefits directly from their employers, working Americans are still forced to risk their incomes and jobs to maintain their families.  Employees of small companies lack any federal protection whatsoever. The solution is to broaden the reach of the Family Medical Leave Act and establish an insurance system to offer paid family leave based on the successful models in California and New Jersey.

Scholarly and policy perspectives aside, by far the most moving testimony was offered by New York City retail worker and mother Kimberly Ortiz. Describing her life as the low-wage single parent of two autistic boys, Ms. Ortiz asserted:  “ A few paid sick days a year, a set schedule, and wages that keep up with the rising cost of living would make a tremendous difference in my family’s life.  As a single mother, I need to be present for [my children] Ethan and Aiden, and provide for them. This is what middle class means to me.”