When Chicago public schools closed for a snow day in late January, single mom Rhiannon Broschat was forced to choose between her special needs son and her part-time grocery store job. As many parents in similar situations do every day, she scrambled to find a caretaker but couldn't.
So she stayed home from work to look after her child. Having depleted the number of unexpected absence days her employer allowed (all unpaid), she was immediately fired.
Broschat is just one of the untold millions of parents who would benefit from the Obama administration's ongoing push for paid family and sick leave, equal pay, and quality child care. Currently, the U.S. ranks with Liberia, Suriname, and Papua New Guinea in the stinginess of its family leave policies, even though paid maternity leave is associated with lower infant mortality and better retention of talented female employees.
“It resonates so much with me, her story, because I have spoken to so many working women and moms. If you have a family emergency, a family responsibility, you should not lose your job over it,” says Liz Watson of the Washington, D.C.–based National Women’s Law Center.
As the center's director of Workplace Justice for Women, Watson follows the treatment of workers in retail and other low-wage industries and is increasingly optimistic that change is on the way.
“We really need a national standard when it comes to paid leave,” she says. “Issues fundamental to working families are increasingly recognized as the kitchen table issues people recognize. In the last several years, they have been picking up steam.”
Twenty-one years ago this week, then-president Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, providing up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave—to be used for personal health or family reasons—for workers at businesses with 50 or more employees.
Though the time can be valuable, its use can become a major financial burden on working families. Also, more than 40 percent of workers are not covered by the act, and half the workers who do qualify are unable to take unpaid leave because they can’t afford to, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Only three states—Rhode Island, California, and New Jersey—have an official paid family leave program, making the drive toward overarching federal legislation that much more urgent.
This past December, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced the federal Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would cement paid family and medical leave for all workers. The bill would allow employees to earn 66 percent of their monthly wages while on leave, up to a capped amount, for up to 60 workdays or 12 weeks of caregiving days.
In another approach to paid leave legislation, DeLauro was joined by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, last March to reintroduce the Healthy Families Act, which would allow workers to earn up to 56 hours or seven days of paid sick leave, with one hour of paid sick time earned for every 30 hours worked. The proposed bill has been under review by congressional subcommittees.
As for child care, last November Harkin introduced the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, to expand access to high-quality early learning programs for children from birth to age 5 and preschool funding for four-year-olds for families earning 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less. Hearings on the bill started this week.
The 1996 welfare "reform" law signed by President Clinton forced beneficiaries to work or attend school after a certain amount of time collecting benefits, but it didn't provide them with child care while they were supposed to be doing that. The result has been many low-income families struggling to choose between child care they can trust and a job outside the home.
Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, says more availability of on-site quality child care could also bring greater stability for working parents.
Nearly one in five families with children is headed by a single working mom, according to statistics calculated by the National Women's Law Center.
“This country needs to support child care for all working parents,” says O’Neill. “Also raise the minimum wage so it becomes a living wage. If a worker has a living wage, she would be able to have better access to child care.”
“The biggest push right now is on the president. He shouldn’t rest on his laurels,” says Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women. “When women succeed, America succeeds.”