Paid Family Leave Only Works When it Works for All Families

By Hannah Tennies, National Action Program Intern

Growing up in a household with a single mother means that time off is hard to come by, let alone paid time off. Without federal Paid Family and Medical Leave only about 13% of private sector workers have access to paid leave in the United States (“The Economics Daily” 2016). My mom worked long hours at part-time and full-time jobs throughout my childhood which made it extremely difficult for her to take time off when I was sick or she had other caregiving duties. When you are the sole breadwinner and are living paycheck to paycheck you simply cannot afford to take unpaid time off. Throughout the 2016 election, paid family leave was thrown around by pundits and candidates alike without a deep understanding of it. Paid family leave needs to be inclusive and apply to all workers in order to be effective.

My family’s story shows that traditional conceptions about caregiving and patriarchal mindsets regarding parenting are not reality. Attempting to create policy without taking into account different types of families, especially families that don’t look like a 1950s sitcom is ignorant and ineffective. My family is one of the ‘non-traditional’ ones that don’t always get consideration.

My mom would have benefitted from paid family leave in three ways throughout my childhood. First, to take care of me and my brother on usual sick days. I can remember being as young as eight or nine years old and staying home alone when I was sick. My mom did her best; she would call to check in or ask family friends to stop by, but it was a patchwork system. Second, my mom could have also used paid family leave when my brother, who had severe mental and emotional issues, needed to be hospitalized. My mom had to take unpaid time off from work in order to care for my brother and take him to doctor’s appointments, jeopardizing our financial situation. Third, paid family leave would have benefitted my mom when my grandmother moved in during the last years of her life. When I was fifteen, my grandmother broke her spine and that, along with other health issues, made it impossible for her to live alone, and she could not afford an assisted living community. My mother became her primary caregiver and took over her around the clock care. My mom got up early in the morning, came home on her lunch breaks, and spent her evenings caring for my grandmother. Without paid time off, my mom was basically working two jobs. This second shift is something that many workers, especially women have to do in order to make ends meet. Without paid leave, my mom’s only option was to work around her caregiving duties or risk losing her job.

These three situations are not unique to my family–almost all workers will at some point need to take time off for caregiving duties. These caregiving duties sometimes fit the usual narrative of time off for pregnancy or care for an infant, but they can also look totally different. It looks like my mom taking care of my grandmother, it looks like husband caring for an ill wife, and it looks like parents taking care of their adult children with special needs. Caregiving is a part of everyone’s life but the government is not providing workers with the benefits they need to survive, forcing them to juggle multiple roles without support.

Currently the United States is the only advanced industrialized country that does not have some form of federal paid family leave. Most countries offer months of paid leave for caregiving duties in order to support their workers and families. The benefits of paid leave range from worker satisfaction to improved infant health outcomes to lower turnover cost for businesses. Paid leave allows workers to keep their job and not fall into financial distress when life happens.

The United States provides unpaid job protection for workers after they give birth or for other caregiving duties with the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Before 1993, there was no job protection for people that took time off and no required time off for caregiving duties. While a step in the right direction, unpaid leave is deeply flawed and only accommodates workers with enough wealth and social capital to take time off without pay. My mom was not one of those people, without pay for a few weeks or even days and she would not have been able to support my family. The reality is that many families live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford to lose pay even for something as vital as taking care of their families.

Without federal paid leave the fight has gone to the state and local level. As politicians on both sides of the aisle call for better leave policies we need to remember that it is not enough just to have paid leave, the leave needs to be inclusive, intersectional and accessible to all workers. Leave needs to cover a wide range of caregiving duties and apply to all workers as they care for children, parents, partners, after they give birth or adopt and when they themselves have health issues. Leave needs to address the fact that women still bear the brunt of caregiving duties and that the majority of caregivers in America are women. We must also acknowledge that low-income workers and workers of color are more likely to need PFL but often cannot afford to take it because it is not always full salary compensation.

I have been researching and advocating for paid family leave for the past few years, so I was shocked and honestly a little excited when I heard that Donald Trump was talking about paid leave on the campaign trail. PFL is not popular with the Republican Party and has not been at the top of their legislative agenda.However, once I read over the proposed plan I realized that it was not the intersectional inclusive policy working families need and deserve. The policy offers six weeks paid leave to new mothers after childbirth. The plan offers no paternity leave, ignoring the role that fathers play in children’s lives as well as perpetuating the archaic idea that only women care for children. Trump’s plan also completely ignores and delegitimizes families that don’t fit the typical mold. Parents who adopt, same-sex couples, caregivers and parents caring for adolescent children would not benefit from this plan. None of the three caregiving situations my mom faced would be seen as legitimate reasons for paid time off under this plan. The Trump plan shows just how disconnected Trump and the entire Republican Party are to real families. Taking paid leave after a child is born is an important part of caregiving but making the two synonymous erases the experiences of millions of workers, including my mom.

Growing up with a single mother taught me a lot about being independent and hardworking. My mom struggled to be able to provide for our family but some of the hardships she endured could have been prevented if paid family leave was a standard in the United States and if the policy is inclusive and intersectional. Trump’s plan falls short and tells me as the daughter of single mother that our family doesn’t count and that our caregiving needs are not relevant in his America.

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