Why Paid Leave Means... Everything

Debra L. Ness, Vicki Shabo

Cross-posted from Shondaland.com.

Twenty-five years after we won a national unpaid leave law, it's time to finally win paid leave.

What would it mean for women, families, our country and our economy if the birth of a child or a serious illness didn’t force millions of people to make impossible choices between their jobs and their families? If taking time away from work to provide care didn’t result in financial hardship so often? If women and men were well-positioned to provide care to loved ones? We would be a stronger, healthier and more equitable nation.

That answer is what motivated our organization and many allies to push for, and eventually win, the first and only national leave law – the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – which turns 25 today. And it is also the reason we’re pushing so hard right now for paid family and medical leave for every working person and family. Advocates and lawmakers are making real progress in cities and states across the country and in companies of all sizes. But ultimately, the United States needs a national paid family and medical leave program that doesn’t leave anyone – from an hourly, part-time worker to an emerging executive – behind.

The fight for a national paid leave law is more important than ever at this extraordinary, long-overdue moment of reckoning about gender and work. People across the country are coming together in historic ways to recognize the barriers – from harassment to discrimination and bias – to women’s equality in the workplace, which especially punish women of color, low-income women and those whose jobs give them no voice and little power.

It is time to demand real change in how women are treated, and putting a comprehensive national paid leave policy in place is essential to making that change. Because in order to secure a future in which all women and all people can live and work with dignity, we need policies that value women and promote gender equality. And that’s what paid leave means.

Paid leave means protecting the health and economic well-being of working people, families and communities. Right now, 85 percent of U.S. workers – more than 100 million people – have jobs that do not offer paid family leave. More than 60 percent do not have paid medical leave through employer-provided temporary disability insurance. As a result, when working people welcome new children, have family members who become seriously ill or injured, or need serious medical care of their own, they have to choose between their jobs and their health or the health of their families.

Paid leave means recognizing that our businesses and our economy are stronger when people can care for themselves and their families while keeping their jobs. Because when people are forced to leave the workforce to get or receive critical care, it costs them and their employers. People older than 50 who leave the workforce to care for their parents lose an average of more than $300,000 in wages and retirement savings, and that number is even higher for women. And it costs businesses between 16 and 200 percent of workers’ salaries to replace them. All of this is a drag on our communities and our economy.

Paid leave means busting stereotypes about jobs, family and care that hold women and working people back. Women are still the primary caregivers for most families, but a majority are also key breadwinners in households with children, and that’s especially true for mothers of color. Many men want to play a larger role in caregiving, but they find that their companies don’t provide paid leave of any kind, or they only provide it for new moms. And men can face stigma for taking leave. Gender-neutral paid leave policies that offer equal amounts of leave to men and women enable both to be caregivers while fostering changes in our culture.

Paid leave means respecting the diversity of families and the many types of care needs people address during their lives. Meeting the needs of parents caring for new children is critically important, but it is insufficient on its own. More than three in four people who take leave under the FMLA do so to recover from serious illnesses or injuries, or to care for a seriously ill or injured parent, spouse, child or relative. Effective paid leave policies cover all working people for the full range of serious medical and caregiving reasons.

Paid leave means addressing the rapidly growing demand for care and valuing care. More than 43 million people provide unpaid care to family members and most of them have paying jobs. Right now, nearly half of people who provide care to older family members lose income when they do so. And with the number of people over age 65 expected to double to 98 million by 2060, the strain on caregivers and older adults will only get worse, unless we enable people to care for their loved ones while keeping their jobs.

Quite simply, for our country’s women and families, businesses and economy, paid leave means everything. The success of the FMLA, the way it has transformed our workplaces and culture, and fact that it has been used more than 200 million times show us what is possible when we persist and when lawmakers listen to their constituents and come together to advance common sense policies.

It’s time for federal lawmakers to do so again by following the lead of the state and local lawmakers and forward-thinking businesses that have established paid leave policies of their own. At this critical time for our country, we must not accept more of the same or settle for policies and practices that perpetuate the status quo. It is past time to fulfill the FMLA’s promise of more equitable and family friendly workplaces. A national paid family and medical leave plan would do just that.

This is more than a moment for the country; it’s a movement for real change. Join the movement and spread the word – and, like us, vow not to rest until we win.

Debra L. Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women & Families and Vicki Shabo is the organization’s vice president for workplace policies and strategies. The National Partnership (then the Women’s Legal Defense Fund) drafted and the led the fight for the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and is now leading the push for a national paid family and medical leave law.

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