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Why Democrats' doomed family leave bill matters

Paid leave is an issue of economic justice -- and it still disproportionately affects women.
Jayme Sheppard carries her daughter as she departs for school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, May 23, 2013.
Jayme Sheppard carries her daughter as she departs for school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, May 23, 2013. 

Get a wife.

The United States' approach to work-life balance more or less boils down to that. A wife to take care of young children while the husband was at work. Or to stay home when a child was sick. Or to take care of an aging parent.

Of course, even in the supposedly halcyon post-war era of gender roles, not all families fit the stereotype. Some women always worked for pay, especially women of color. But the model of the wife picking up the domestic slack has never been less applicable than in the 21st century. 

Both our politics and our workplaces remain, by and large, blissfully unaware of the fact that households are structured in myriad ways, often with two working parents. Paid leave is an issue of economic justice -- and it still disproportionately affects women. That’s why the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, introduced Thursday by New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Connecticut Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, matters.

“No one should have to choose between their job and taking care of themself and their family,” said DeLauro.

Under the bill -- modeled on New Jersey's and California’s laws -- employees would contribute 0.2% of their wages in exchange for up to 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds their usual monthly salary. The benefits would be administered by a trust fund within the Social Security Administration.

No one is holding their breath for Congress to pass the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act – not these days, when basic subsistence benefits for the unemployed remain a long shot. But politically speaking, it provides yet another opportunity for Democrats to put Republicans on the offensive when it comes to women, not to mention their supposed fealty to "family values." 

"The way to reach women is broader than reproductive health," said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a coalition of state and local groups working on family leave and paid sick days. "It also includes economic health. Introducing this bill is a reflection of that – it’s a way of saying, 'Show us where you stand.'"

It also returns to the national agenda an issue that has seen virtually no national progress since the Family Leave and Medical Act 20 years ago. And it helps shed a light on the local and state-wide initiatives that are already being implemented. 

Since President Bill Clinton signed the FMLA into law, an estimated 35 million people have taken advantage of its job-protected, unpaid leave to take care of themselves or their families. But plenty of people have been left out: those who can’t afford to work without pay; those who work for small companies or part time; and those whose family crises don’t qualify, because their marriage isn’t recognized or their family member is a sibling and not a child.

And that’s longer-term leave. Plenty of people can’t even take a paid day off. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “more than four in 10 private-sector workers — and more than 80% of low-wage workers — do not have paid sick days at all.”  Compared to other industrialized nations, it's a pathetic showing for the United States.

In New York's mayoral race this year, paid sick days were successfully framed as a women's issue, with Gloria Steinem withholding her endorsement of New York City Council Speaker and candidate Christine Quinn until she brought a paid sick day bill to a vote. Quinn lost to Bill deBlasio, who not only embraced the idea, but has said he'll expand its reach. 

 "If we want gender justice and equality, we have to address women's caregiving role, and we have to make sure that men can share in it," said Bravo.

Local groups have made serious progress in cities and states, winning paid sick days in cities like Seattle, Portland and Jersey City, N.J. and family leave policies in states like New Jersey and Washington state.

"Many of us realized that congressional action was not likely in the near future," said Bravo. "Workplace reforms are often won first on the local and state level. It helps defeat opponents who say the sky will fall and the businesses will flee." 

That opposition has been formidable, including from chambers of commerce and what Bravo calls "the other NRA" -- the National Restaurant Association. In both Florida and Wisconsin, state legislatures overrode local efforts to pass paid sick leave. 

But in places where family-friendly policies have gone into effect, the sky hasn't fallen. "Not only does it defeat the predictions of doom, it helps people see that change is possible -- and that they are the agent of change," said Bravo. "It's not that they didn't know they needed it or that they didn't want it. It's that they didn't know they could get it."