Being family friendly takes more than words

Some news just leaves you shaking your head. 

The news that some lawmakers are being trained to appeal to women by making their images more “family friendly” is an example.  Certainly, there is no question that congressional attention to the needs of women and their families is badly needed and long overdue. After all, women are nearly half the workforce, primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households with children, and essential to our national and family economies. And we are struggling with unequal wages, a weak economy, and our nation’s failure to adopt basic family friendly policies that would support us in our dual roles as family caregivers and wage-earners.

But in this climate, with real change urgently needed, merely sharing personal or family stories, or falsely claiming legislation you support is family friendly, is an insult as well as a fool’s errand.

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If lawmakers are serious about appealing to women, then they need to eliminate the gap between words and actions and secure real progress.

As of last week, members of Congress have a new opportunity to do just that. That’s because Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D–Conn.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.) introduced the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. This bill would establish a national paid leave program that would ensure people can earn some pay when they get seriously ill, welcome a new child or have a loved one who needs care.

In short: It doesn’t get more family friendly than the FAMILY Act.

Just 12 percent of U.S. workers today have paid family leave through their employers, and fewer than 40 percent have paid medical leave through employer-provided temporary disability insurance. Of the 188 countries for which data are available, the United States is one of only seven that do not guarantee paid maternity leave.

At the same time, there is a growing body of evidence showing that establishing a national paid leave program would have widespread benefits. From giving families critical financial stability, to leveling the playing field for businesses, to ensuring people have money to spend in their communities, to reducing reliance on food stamps and other forms of public assistance, paid leave positively impacts workers, families, businesses and our economy.

The very type of paid leave program the FAMILY Act would establish works. Family leave insurance programs have been working well in California since 2004 and New Jersey since 2009. In 2014, Rhode Island will implement a similar program.

The FAMILY Act already has substantial support. The coalition pushing for its passage is more than 415 organizations strong, spanning all 50 states. Business owners support it, and a 2013 Small Business Majority poll shows that more small employers support paid leave insurance than oppose it. A 2012 election poll found that 86 percent of voters feel that congressional and presidential consideration of a proposal like the FAMILY Act is important.

It has been 20 years since Congress passed the nation’s first and only federal law designed to help people manage job and family – the Family and Medical Leave Act. As the organization that led the fight for its passage, we saw firsthand how lawmakers came together to put action behind family friendly words. They can and should do the same now, with the FAMILY Act.

Being a truly family friendly legislator means advancing proposals like the FAMILY Act that will help women, their families and our country. Americans have long been ready for a family friendly Congress and a truly family friendly America. We are ready for the FAMILY Act.

Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.