Congress needs to bring family and medical leave policies into the 21st century

Every day, far too many American workers across the country are forced to make a harrowing choice between their jobs and the well-being of their loved ones. Without the safety net provided by paid family and medical leave, that decision can have devastating financial and personal consequences.

That’s why it’s long past time for Congress to bring family and medical leave policies into the 21st century — and on par with every other developed country in the world.

Last week, Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroPhysicians arrested after protesting denial of flu shots to migrants in US custody Advocacy groups decry Trump's 'anti-family policies' ahead of White House summit 'Medicare for All' backers notch win with high-profile hearing MORE (D-Conn.) and Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandAdvocacy groups decry Trump's 'anti-family policies' ahead of White House summit This bipartisan plan is the most progressive approach to paid parental leave Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' MORE (D-N.Y.) reintroduced the FAMILY Act, which would ensure that employees have access to 12 weeks of partial income when taking medical and family leave. Passing the FAMILY Act would be a critical step forward in American health policy and provide a lifeline for many families in need — including LGBTQ families.

Currently, the U.S. is the only developed country in the world without some form of guaranteed paid leave. Only 13 percent of the nation’s private workforce is offered paid family leave by their employer and less than 40 percent have personal medical leave from a disability program provided through their workplace.

While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) represented important progress for our nation’s leave policies and families, many employees — including those working in small businesses or part-time — are ineligible to take FMLA leave. And because FMLA leave is unpaid, even those who are eligible to take time off often cannot afford to do so.

The results of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation’s recent groundbreaking nationwide survey of LGBTQ people underscore the unique challenges that non-inclusive leave policies mean for LGBTQ families. Fewer than half of respondents report that their employer’s policies cover new parents of all genders equally. Only 45 percent of respondents indicate that their employers have LGBTQ-inclusive leave policies. And one in five respondents would be afraid to request time off to care for a loved one because it might disclose their LGBTQ identity.

With the prevalence of workplace discrimination and higher rates of poverty, LGBTQ workers and their families can face steep hurdles to accessing leave. And for LGBTQ people living at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, barriers to paid leave are compounded.

Racial bias and discrimination reduce access and leave families of color in heightened jeopardy of financial insecurity. Sixty-seven percent of respondents of color to HRC’s survey said they feared that, without paid leave, the day would come when they’d be forced to choose between their loved ones and their jobs.

LGBTQ working people requesting leave for transgender-specific or HIV-related health care also face serious barriers. Many are hesitant to even ask for leave because those who have made requests are often then viewed or treated differently and subject to harassment — and without explicit non-discrimination laws at the federal level, these threats become very real.

LGBTQ families and families from coast to coast need these common sense provisions and these provisions are overwhelmingly popular. Polls suggest that more than 70 percent of voters from both parties are in favor of requiring employers to offer paid leave to parents of new children and employees caring for sick family members.

Every year, millions of Americans face significant life events, including medical treatment and recovery, taking care of a loved one, or welcoming a child. With the protections of the FAMILY Act, families can have the financial and employment security to focus on what we should always be able to put first — the people we love.

Ellen Kahn is a national advocate for LGBTQ families and is the director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Children, Youth and Families Program. With a background and expertise in social work, Ellen is sought out as an expert on topics ranging from LGBTQ adoption to creating LGBTQ- inclusive schools.