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Congress should heed the call of New Deal feminists

Congress should heed the call of New Deal feminists
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Last August, Jadene, a fast-food worker in Georgia, faced an impossible choice: leave her 10-year-old home alone or lose her job. Without any paid leave or accessible child care, there was no way she could keep her paycheck and ensure her son was safe. 

She left her full-time job. 

Jadene’s story is all too familiar and is one we hear daily on our helpline. A lack of child care, paid family and medical leave and disproportionate caretaking responsibilities have driven mothers out of the workforce by the hundreds of thousands over the past year. Those most affected are disproportionately Black and Latina women in low-wage jobs.

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The old saying about history repeating itself holds true today. Ninety years ago, New Deal feminists pushing for fairer laws and policies so that mothers, especially those in low-wage jobs, could take time off for education and providing care, lobbied for maternity leave and investments in child care and urged recognition of women’s unpaid caregiving as part of the calculation of Social Security benefits. According to historian Dorothy Sue Cobble, “It wasn’t enough for women to access what had traditionally been men’s work. Rather, they argued, it was necessary to transform the world of work, its values and practices.”

Yet nearly a century later, outdated laws and workplace policies continue to punish mothers — especially women of color who cannot do their jobs from home — and make it impossible for them to work and adequately care for their families. 

The inequality mothers face often begins at pregnancy. Consider the fact that pregnant workers, especially women of color, are still routinely denied modest workplace accommodations under federal law, forcing them to choose between their paycheck and a healthy pregnancy. In an extensive review of recent case law, A Better Balance, which I co-founded and serve as co-president of, found that in over two-thirds of cases, courts have held employers were permitted to deny pregnant workers accommodations under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act — a stool, extra bathroom breaks and temporary light duty are common examples. 

While Congress has a solution sitting on their desks in the form of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, and the bill passed the House last year with more than 75 percent of members supporting it, it still hasn’t made it over the finish line after nearly a decade.  

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), which guarantees 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave to care for a new baby, themselves or seriously ill loved one is usually little help to them, either. That’s because it’s not only unpaid, but it requires that someone work nearly full-time, a full year of service before eligibility and it only applies to companies with 50 or more employees. As a result, only about half of all workers are even eligible for the FMLA. Without job-protected time off, millions of new mothers see their hours slashed or jobs disappear after childbirth.  

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Even fewer mothers and caregivers have access to any paid time off. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), of the workers in occupations that are in the bottom 10 percent of the average wage distribution, only 21 percent have access to paid sick days and just 4 percent have access to paid family and medical leave. Without the right to paid time off, millions of mothers and caregivers in America drain their savings to care for a sick child or ill family member, driving them deeper into poverty. Child care also still remains unaffordable and inaccessible, especially during the pandemic. While the House and Senate dropped emergency paid leave from the American Rescue Plan, it does include crucial investments for child care.

Finally, overly rigid and unpredictable scheduling practices wreak havoc on mothers and low-wage workers, particularly women of color, yet there is no federal law on the books that guards against punishment for requesting flexible work or promotes fair scheduling practices. One call center worker in New York City requested a later morning shift so she could get her special needs child on the school bus. Instead, without discussion, she was placed on the overnight shift.

“No fault” employer attendance policies make managing work and care especially difficult. Under these policies, workers are punished for absences, often even those protected by law. For example, a recent A Better Balance client was terminated under a retail company’s attendance policy for leaving work early because she thought she was having a miscarriage. Another worker was terminated for missing work for two days due to her child’s pneumonia.

Too many mothers are living on the edge, and the lack of supportive workplace policies routinely force them to make the impossible choice between caring for themselves or their loved ones at the risk of falling into poverty. Until and unless we reform these outdated laws and policies once and for all, the systemic inequalities laid bare by the pandemic will only worsen and millions of women in America will continue to jeopardize their livelihoods simply by having children. 

Nearly a century since New Deal feminists first spoke out for stronger work-family policies and a more caring society, it’s time for Congress and the administration to support these long overdue protections. Beginning National Women's History Month by passing the American Rescue Plan and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would be a strong first step to demonstrate support for mothers.  

Dina Bakst is co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, a national legal advocacy organization using the power of the law to advance justice for workers. She is also co-author of "Babygate: What You Really Need to Know About Pregnancy & Parenting in the American Workplace." She has also been named "One of 15 Individuals and Groups Fighting for a More Equal America" by Time Magazine.