During the recent Women’s March in Hartford, Susan Eastwood, a board member of the nonprofit Permanent Commission on the Status of Women in CT, wandered among attendees and asked them about paid family leave.
First, she asked women pushing strollers—ostensibly, women in their child-bearing years. They told her compelling stories about not having enough money to take time off from work.
But the older women were particularly passionate. They are caring for elderly parents, for adult children with significant medical needs, or they’re batting their own health issues.
The Connecticut Campaign for Paid Family Leave is a coalition of some 65 organizations that is advocating for paid leaves. The group includes some small businesses, AARP of Connecticut, AIDS Connecticut, and New Haven Legal Assistance. The charge is being led by Connecticut Women’s Legal and Education Fund (CWEALF).
In 2016, the state Department of Labor commissioned a report that looked at paid family leave in states such as New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, said Madeline Granato, CWEALF policy manager.
The report said that if employees contributed as little as .5 percent of their weekly earnings—or about the cost of one cup of coffee per week—the program could be self-sustaining, said Granato.
In addition, this year’s proposal includes a broad definition of “family,” and 12 weeks’ pay funded by the employee deduction, said Eastwood. That allows everyone to benefit, including people in lower-paying jobs, where only 5 percent have employer-provided paid family leave, according to the 2016 report.
“A lot of lower-paid workers have even less opportunity,” said Eastwood. “If you’ve seen things about the flu right now, you want people to stay home and get well, and yet that becomes a hardship.”
In his State of the Union address last month, President Donald J. Trump, too, mentioned the need for paid family leave. That line got a standing ovation, including from conservatives who don’t tend to clap for such things.
The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t offer paid family leave. In Costa Rica, a worker can expect 100 percent of her paycheck during leave, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In France, leave is paid for by public healthcare, and starts at 16 weeks for the first child.
We have, instead, the Family Medical Leave Act, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Through FMLA, companies that employ 50 or more are required to grant workers who meet certain criteria up to three months of annual leave to care for a newborn, a sick family member, settle in after an adoption, or to care for one’s self.
Those leaves are mostly unpaid, which restricts their use to people who are able to save and live without a paycheck for a few weeks or months.
A recent Senate Republican proposal is wholly inadequate. In that plan, an attempt to carve out six weeks of paid leave requires an employee to tap into her Social Security benefits. Considering women still make just 80 cents on the dollar—and tend, because of childcare duties, to work less hours as do men—this is going to make for some disastrous retirement years.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who represents Connecticut’s 3rd District, called the proposal “woefully insufficient and harmful to working families.”
Any attempt to tamper with Social Security “would jeopardize workers’ future retirement security and would hurt women, low-wage workers and workers of color the most,” DeLauro said.
Let’s look on the bright side. As Granato said, at least family medical leave is getting attention on both sides of the aisle. The state labor committee just voted to draft a bill. But let’s make sure we do it right.
Susan Campbell is a distinguished lecturer at the University of New Haven. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.