By Karen S. White
The day following a national Tele-Town Hall that brought together thousands of callers across the country to discuss an agenda to advance women and families, a more intimate, in-person gathering took place in the State House in Trenton. We gathered to celebrate the work that’s already been done in New Jersey and call for expanding it nationally. Co-hosting the event, When Women Succeed, America Succeeds, were Congressman Rush Holt, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, and AFT President Randi Weingarten. Given the attention paid to this issue earlier in the week, attendees and participants were already pumped up and ready for action.
Speakers talked about the three pillars of the Economic Agenda for Women and Families – pay, work and family balance, and child care. The recurring theme throughout the event was that without basic workplace standards, workers cannot adequately fulfill both their caregiving and job responsibilities. Much of the discussion at the event focused on the need for paid family and medical leave.
February 5 marks the 21st anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which has been used over 100 million times, helping 35 million people keep their jobs and health insurance while they cared for a family health crises or a new baby. FMLA is a huge success but has its limitations. For example, FMLA provides unpaid, job-protected leave, but leaves out more than two-fifths of the workforce. For many who are covered, taking unpaid leave is not possible or creates significant hardship. This means that too many working families struggle to make ends meet or forego necessary treatment or healing.
Despite the fact that nearly eight in 10 adults in the United States say that family and maternity leave is a “very important” workplace standard, only five states – California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island – provide for personal medical leave through Temporary Disability Insurance programs. And only three states, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have gone a step further by implementing family leave insurance programs that provide wage replacement to workers when they take time from work for to care for seriously ill family members or to bond with a new child.
Ann Vardeman, a soon-to-be mother, spoke at the event about what New Jersey’s family leave insurance program means to her: “It’s a great relief for us to know that we will be able to take the time away from work to bond with our new child, establish a routine, and still be able to pay our bills.”
New Jersey is proud to join California and now Rhode Island in taking the lead and enacting family leave insurance programs. But the fact remains that the vast majority of workers live in states that do not provide this basic standard. As Congressman Holt put it:
“Our economy can’t succeed if half of the population is left behind. Family and work patterns have dramatically changed over the past decades, but federal and state laws have not kept up. Women find themselves caught between competing priorities of keeping their job and family responsibilities. We can do better – for women, their families, and for our economy.”
FMLA is a good step forward but more can be done. We need a national standard for paid family and medical leave that is available to all workers. To this end, the FAMILY Act, introduced in Congress in 2013, would create a social insurance fund that would provide partial wage replacement to workers when they need time away from their jobs for family or medical reasons. And efforts are underway to enhance FMLA to include all workers, and expand the definition of family to reflect the family caregiving needs of the 21st century.
Congresswoman DeLauro said it for all of us: “When we focus on an agenda that is about women, about families, then in fact we will see growth and prosperity in our economy.”
Karen S. White is Director of the Working Families Program at Rutgers University Center for Women and Work and a leader in the Time to Care Coalition.