Moving beyond minimal: Fighting for paid family and medical leave
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“A bill so minimal it’s almost an embarrassment to present it.” That’s how Marge Roukema, a key Republican supporter of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), described it to columnist Ellen Goodman back in 1990, when then-President George H. W. Bush vetoed it the first time. (He would go on to veto it again two years later.) Roukema was referring to the fact that the bill’s 12 weeks leave to care for a newborn or a serious personal or family illness was unpaid and left out 40 percent of the workforce.

Although this column was written 26 years ago, the concepts are still top of mind for many, including Rhode Island Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, who had saved the column and recently shared it with us.

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“When the column first came out, I was a young professional entering the workplace, and I saw how the decision to make a family impacted women’s careers,” Paiva Weed told us. “It was as an important issue then as it is now, but back then we only saw it as a women’s issue. Now we realize these are family issues.”

Rhode Island was one of the first states to create an unpaid state leave law, and now is the third state (of four) with paid leave, Sen. Paiva Weed says she is proud that Rhode Island is leading on the issue.

Congress passed the FMLA once more when Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHouse Democrat pledges 'there will be open hearings' in impeachment inquiry Democrats dig in ahead of Supreme Court ruling on 'Dreamers' Even with likely Trump impeachment, Democrats face uphill climb to win presidency MORE took office, and unlike President George H. W. Bush, President Clinton signed it — the very first bill he signed into law. However minimal, it established the principle that having a family shouldn’t cost you your job. Since the law took effect 23 years ago, on August 5, 1993, more than 200 million people have used it to keep their jobs while giving or getting critical care. We’ve seen a lot of progress, but millions across the country still can’t afford time to care for their loved ones.

Rep. Roukema knew a thing or two about needing time to care, especially in the mid 1970s, when as a high school teacher, she looked after her son when he was diagnosed with leukemia, a disease that eventually killed him. She said she didn’t intend to focus on what were seen as women’s issues when she ran for Congress in 1980.  

“I wanted to deal with things like banking and finance," Roukema told an interviewer at Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics in 1995. "But I learned very quickly that if women like me in Congress were not going to attend to some of these family concerns, whether it was jobs or children, pension equity or whatever, then they weren't going to be attended to."

Rep. Roukema had many Republican colleagues who joined her in voting for the FMLA. After the first Bush veto, she told Ellen Goodman that the bill had become “a defining issue. It’s about kids. It’s about grandma and grandpa. It’s about health care. It’s about the two-worker family and what it means to be middle class in America.”

Today, the need to go beyond the minimal — to make leave available and affordable for every American family — is also becoming a defining issue. Paid leave is receiving unprecedented attention, and many candidates running for everything from local office to president, are making this a priority issue. Support in Congress is not yet bi-partisan, but it should be and eventually will be, as voters make clear that they will take this into account at the voting booth.

And unlike 23 years ago, paid family leave is discussed as a family issue. While famous new dads like Mark Zuckerberg are helping lead the way, everyday fathers from across the country are sharing their stories with state and federal legislators and with Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. In states where paid family leave is available, we see a growing number of men accessing the time. In Rhode Island, approximately 1/3 of those taking paid leave are men.

Then, as now, opponents say they like the idea of such leave but do not support making it a “mandate.” Yet, wins in four states, and research conducted on state programs, show the benefits to businesses and families.

As Ellen Goodman pointed out, many employers in 1990 were already doing more than what the FMLA required. Today the number of businesses that surpass the bare minimum has increased, and many larger employers use paid family leave as a means to recruit top talent.

Furthermore, while many small business owners would like to offer paid family leave, many can’t afford to. That’s why we need a social insurance fund like the ones passed now by four states and under consideration in many more — all paving the way for a national fund like that proposed under the FAMILY Act introduced by Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSanders seeks spark from Ocasio-Cortez at Queens rally Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs Senate confirms Trump's Air Force secretary pick MORE and Rep. Rosa DeLauro. These programs pool small contributions to make it possible for employees to draw a significant portion of their wages while they spend time tending to a new infant or helping care for an ailing parent or partner or other loved one.

Ellen Goodman’s words from 26 years ago ring true today: “[F]or a working woman with a newborn child, a working man with a sick wife or mother, the message from Washington has been, tough luck. But luck, like numbers [of votes,] has a way of changing.”

Ellen Bravo directs Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions in 24 state working for policies like paid family and medical leave and paid sick days. Gayle Goldin is a state Senator from Rhode Island who introduced successful paid leave legislation in that state. She advises Family Values @ Work’s paid leave campaigns.


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