A historic moment to truly honor mothers
President Biden’s American Families Plan marks the first time in this nation’s history that a president has put out a comprehensive paid leave proposal, recognizing that no one should have to sacrifice their economic security to care for themselves or their loved ones.
Not only is this a historic and unprecedented investment, it is desperately needed. Supportive work-family policies such as paid family and medical leave, quality, affordable child care and other related policies are not “nice-to-haves” — the workers we talk to everyday need them for their financial and often physical survival.
Since last April, over 3,000 workers have contacted our free work-family legal helpline, and they are disproportionately women of color in low-wage jobs, who are forced to make impossible choices between earning a paycheck and caring for themselves or their loved ones due to major gaps in our nation’s labor and civil rights laws.
Alexzandria, who is due to give birth in October, called us panicked when after she told her boss she was pregnant he made her sign a statement that if she took leave for more than one or two days at a time, he would suspend her paycheck. He told her “maternity benefits can’t be that important.” Alexzandria works in Michigan where there is no state paid family and medical leave law, nor does she qualify for federal unpaid, job-protected leave.
Tesia, a pregnant retail worker in Missouri, a state with no pregnancy accommodation law, called us after she asked her manager if she could keep a water bottle behind the counter because the store shut down the water fountain due to COVID-19 safety concerns. She wanted to avoid getting dehydrated, which could put her pregnancy in jeopardy. Her manager refused — so she left her job to avoid risking her health.
A factory worker who had been at her job for over 30 years called us because she needed to care for her husband who had a stroke and kidney failure, but she only had unpaid time off and couldn’t afford to go without an income. Faced with caring for her ailing husband or her income, she left her job and gave up her paycheck. She, too, lived in a state without a paid family and medical leave law.
In the midst of a public health crisis that has killed more than a half million Americans, workers in this country lack not only the right to paid family leave, but also have no national right to a single day of paid sick time, even if they have COVID-19. The United States of America — the wealthiest country in the world — has no national sick leave law during a pandemic. Without any legal protection the 32 million private-sector workers, who are not covered by state or local law or an employer policy, are routinely required to go into work sick, forgo the care of a loved one, lose out on critical income, or face being fired.
For 15 years, we’ve lamented that caregiving is treated as a private problem to be solved individually. We expect caregiving to take place in the gaps of “leisure” time or pieced together ad hoc, leaving everyone on their own. Caring for your husband after a stroke is not leisure. Taking care of a feverish child is not leisure. It is time for lawmakers to fundamentally transform the workplace to finally make that clear.
In addition to the president’s strong paid leave proposal, and various strong Congressional paid leave proposals from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Richard Neal (D-Mass.), Congress has other critical solutions to our callers’ problems sitting on their desks. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, championed by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), would ensure that pregnant workers are no longer forced off the job for needing modest accommodations, leaving them without a paycheck or the possibility of receiving paid leave once they give birth. The bill — which passed the House with overwhelming support last September — and passed again through committee in March, awaits a House vote. As the American Jobs and Families Plans get fleshed out over the next couple months, Congress should act now and bring that bill to a vote for Mother’s Day.
The Healthy Families Act, reintroduced recently in Congress and that Biden also lifted up in the American Families Plan, would finally guarantee a nationwide right to paid sick leave for all workers in the U.S. The paid sick days laws we’ve passed in 16 states and dozens of localities have been critical supports for workers, especially low-wage workers who previously lacked that benefit — but we need to guarantee that right to every worker in this country.
Millions of workers, especially mothers of color, have been forced out of the workforce over the past year due to gaps in our nation’s laws and policies that support them. As we approach Mother’s Day, we have a historic opportunity to truly honor their labor by passing laws that will help them care for themselves and their loved ones without risking their economic security. Our nation’s mothers and families are depending on it.
Dina Bakst and Sherry Leiwant are co-founders and co-presidents of A Better Balance, a national legal advocacy organization dedicated to advancing justice for workers caring for themselves and their loved ones.
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