Several participants at the Republican debate last week spoke fervently about putting Rosa Parks’ image on the $10 bill. They also spoke fervently in support of a decision by Congress to defund Planned Parenthood—an organization that counted Rosa Parks among the members of its national board.
The contradiction would have been obvious and painful to Ms. Parks. Like many of us, she’d have been bewildered by the priorities of candidates who have held vote after vote on shutting down vital health services for women, but won’t even schedule a hearing on the FAMILY Act, a bill to provide affordable family and medical leave. It’s impossible to care about families and leave communities bereft of services for contraception, mammograms and other cancer screenings, and dozens more critical health services for women. It’s also impossible to call yourself “pro-life” and oppose a badly-needed, common sense program to make family and medical leave affordable to care for a new child or a seriously ill family member.
In 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act passed Congress with bipartisan support. The FMLA provided up to 12 weeks unpaid leave for care of a new child or a serious personal illness or that of a child, spouse or parent. Republicans as well as Democrats saw that valuing family meant making sure people could care for family members without losing their jobs or health insurance. Many of the state and local campaigns within Family Values @ Work’s national network have leaders from both parties—including the numerous Republicans leading the charge for the Family Care Act in Georgia.
So what’s the problem in the nation’s capital today?
The FMLA is now 22 years old. While it constituted a major breakthrough and established the principle that having a family shouldn’t cost you your job, the leave remains out of reach for millions—some because they’re not covered by its protections (two-fifths of the nation’s workforce), and many who are eligible because they cannot afford to take unpaid leave. According to a study done for the Department of Labor (DOL), nearly one in four employed mothers who are pregnant go back to work within two weeks of giving birth—with disastrous results for maternal and infant health. Others who take the time they need to heal and bond with a child often face financial hardship.
A new report from the DOL highlights the high cost of doing nothing—lost family income, lower earnings and weaker job security for women, more stress and worse health, worse outcomes for children and seniors, and fewer men taking leave. Businesses also sustain losses in replacing experienced and skilled staff. Our nation suffers in comparison to all our economic competitors.
The lack of paid leave adds to the growing inequality in our nation. A mere 5 percent of low-wage and part-time workers have any pay during leave. And, as the report points out, there are costs harder to calculate: “We are compromising the needs of our children and our parents. We are sacrificing the fundamental value of spending time with one’s family.”
Pope Francis called the family “a great test bench” for how we organize work. “When the organization of work holds it hostage or, in fact, places obstacles in its way, then we are certain that the human society has begun to work against itself!”
If elected officials are serious about promoting family values, they need to stop wasting time on frivolous bills that are a detriment to women and their families and pass the FAMILY Act, a bill that actually helps families everywhere.
By Ellen Bravo, Executive Director, Family Values @ Work.