Women on the Hill Address Family Leave

by Alyse Shulimson, JWI Intern

Taking care of newborn babies. Caring for sick and elderly parents. Recovering from surgeries. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, and we never know what challenges may come our way. Being a caretaker or recovering from an illness or emergency is full time work in itself. What happens when that’s compounded by the fear of forgoing a steady job and paycheck? Many employers don’t offer sufficient medical or parental leave, and families are stuck in the impossible situation of choosing whether to take care of a loved one or maintain a steady income.

Last Wednesday afternoon, my fellow JWI interns and I had the opportunity to attend the Democratic Women’s Working Group’s hearing about paid family and medical leave. The hearing, hosted by Congresswomen Linda Sanchez, Lois Frankel, Brenda Lawrence, Rosa DeLauro, Carolyn Maloney, and Suzanne Bonamici, addressed important issues that are incredibly relevant in the context of the impending FAMILY (Family And Medical Insurance Leave) Act. This act would cover workers in all types of companies, provide workers with up to 12 weeks of partial income for taking time off for health issues or taking having a newborn child, and allow them to earn 66% of their monthly wages. (1)

Each member of the panel shared her own personal and professional experiences, offering distinct perspectives to the conversation. Vicky Shabo, vice president for the National Partnership for Women and Families, explained the public benefits of paid leave, including its positive impact on child development. Gayle Goldin, state senator for Rhode Island, discussed the state’s paid leave program (which was implemented in 2014). Mackenzie Nicholson, member of MomsRising, shared her experiences simultaneously caring for her newborn baby and elderly mother. Josh Levs, a former NPR and CNN fact checker, talked about policies in place for working fathers. Marcia St. Hilaire-Finn, owner of Bright Start Child Care and Preschool, revealed how providing employees with paid leave actually benefits small business owners.

While each of the panelists brought up many compelling points in support of paid leave, what I found most interesting was the discussion of gender in this conversation. As the panelists pointed out, the notion of only providing “maternal leave” perpetuates traditional gender roles that fathers should work and mothers should stay home. As the American family and workplace is changing, so should our policies. Parental leave should allow equal leave for men and women, which can also lead to a cultural shift. Also, as Vicky Shabo pointed out, only 21% of leaves are for parenting purposes. Over half are for personal health issues, and about one-fifth includes care for other family members. This is more than just a women’s issue: it’s a public health issue, a children’s issue, a family issue.    

So what can we do to help push the FAMILY Act through? We need to share our personal stories and experiences, both with each other and with our representatives. If you have a story or experience you’d like to share with Jewish Women International, please send them to us. We need to put as many human faces on this issue as possible, and make sure policymakers are listening to us. As Representative DeLauro said, “members of congress, quite frankly, we get sick, our kids get sick, we’re fine…that should be the case for everyone in our society.”