When I was pregnant with my first child, I asked my employer about the office’s leave policy. My supervisor was stunned by the question: “Leave? What leave? Women just leave.” When I replied that I didn’t intend to leave, the response was “That’s never happened before.”
That was an unacceptable answer for me—and sadly, many workers hear similar words to this day when they need family and medical leave from their jobs to care for themselves and their families.
As a society, we must decide how we want to treat families.
If a woman wants to have a child, should she be forced to choose between staying home with her newborn and receiving her paycheck? Or should we, as a nation, finally recognize that having a baby is a wonderful and predictable part of employees’ lives that we should support?
Should a father whose 2-year-old daughter is diagnosed with cancer be forced to take leave without pay and face financial hardship in order to take his daughter to her chemotherapy treatments? Should a federal employee who has dedicated his or her entire professional career to serving the American people and who must help care for his or her partner after a stroke be forced to leave the workforce altogether and go without a paycheck? Or should we, as a nation, do better by them?
These are the types of questions that we, as policymakers and citizens, must answer. I believe the answer is clear. For too long, workers in both the private and public sectors have had to fend for themselves because this basic benefit is not universally guaranteed.
About 20 percent of all employees do not have access to even paid sick leave, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world that does not require any paid parental leave. We are failing families by not addressing this issue.
We should be a leader, not lagging woefully behind. We need policies that fully support hardworking Americans like that young mother, the father in crisis and the dedicated spouse. Providing paid family and medical leave is a necessary investment in our future—the future of our children, parents, families and nation. Paid leave means healthier parents and children, more productive employees and long-term financial stability for working families. It’s not just the right thing to do; it makes us a better workforce.
This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2020 issue of Ms.
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At the beginning of this Congress, I introduced the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act to provide federal employees—women and men—with 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or fostering of a child; for a serious medical condition; or to care for an ill spouse, child or parent. The federal government is our nation’s largest employer, and it should be a model employer for the nation.
I have introduced different iterations of this bill for many years, trying to ensure that dedicated federal workers get the benefits they deserve and hopefully to inspire public and private sector employers across the nation to adopt a similar policy. Last year, the House passed my bill as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. But we weren’t sure if the provision would survive when the bill went to conference and senators had to agree to it.
After months of negotiations, the conference report included 12 weeks of paid parental leave for all federal employees when they have a new baby or adopt or foster a child. Beginning on Oct. 1, 2020, more than 2.1 million federal employees across the country will not have to worry about their paychecks suddenly coming to a halt when they take time to care for a new child. This is a truly historic accomplishment that we can be proud of. And it was a long time in the making.
Champions like former Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who was chair of the House Civil Service Subcommittee, first proposed unpaid family andmedical leave in 1985. And one of my first votes as a member of Congress in 1993 was in support of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which was the first bill we considered during the 103rd Congress.
Now we must strive to ensure that every worker in the country can take at least 12 weeks of paid leave whenever they need it. No one should ever be forced to choose between their family and their job. The provision in the defense-spending bill, while a huge step forward, is not the end goal. We did ensure paid parental leave, but Senate Republicans refused to include paid leave for medical reasons.
Of the 20 million people each year who take unpaid leave under FMLA, 73 percent use it to care for their own injury or illness, or that of a loved one. New parents are far from the only workers who rely on access to leave at some point in their careers. In fact, people often experience more than one event in their lives during which they would depend on access to paid leave.
That’s why in December I held my first hearing as chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on the need for comprehensive paid family and medical leave for all Americans. I do believe we can finally make that a reality by passing the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act.
As we celebrate this victory and look toward achieving universal paid family and medical leave, I am very optimistic about the momentum behind this effort. People often ask me, “Why now? What’s changed?”
I think it’s obvious: For the first time in history there are more than 100 women serving in the halls of Congress. And, quite simply, we won’t take no for an answer.