Paid Leave Shouldn’t Be a Laughing Matter

| Feb 8, 2017

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

Laughing so we don’t cry is a coping mechanism for many of us these days. It can also inspire meaningful action.

That’s the goal of a new public service announcement produced by Biscuit Filmworks for the National Partnership for Women & Families. “A Long Five Years,” which premiered at the MAKERS Conference, is intended to confront lawmakers and the public with the absurd reality too many workers and their families face because the United States doesn’t guarantee access to paid family and medical leave. It is a bittersweet and comedic take on a harsh reality.

Too many people don’t realize that the vast majority of U.S. workers — 86 percent — don’t have paid family leave through their jobs, and more than 60 percent don’t have paid personal medical leave through an employer’s temporary disability program. That means there are millions of people like fictional Lauren who have to choose between their health or their families and their jobs when serious illnesses or injuries occur, new children arrive, or loved ones need care.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We do not have to settle for a reality in which nearly one-quarter of new moms are back at work within two weeks of giving birth, where an adult who leaves the workforce to care for an aging parent loses more than $300,000 in wages and retirement income, and where a person diagnosed with cancer has to schedule treatment around work shifts or lose precious income or even a job to get care.

Every other developed country has figured out how to guarantee paid leave. Four states now have paid family and medical leave programs, and more are on the horizon. Dozens of companies have recently expanded or adopted paid leave policies of their own, and many are endorsing public paid leave policies. And for the first time ever, paid leave was featured in a major way in the election.

Lawmakers and candidates are smart to prioritize paid leave: 82 percent of 2016 voters, across demographic and party lines, said in an election night poll that it is important for the president and Congress to consider a national paid family and medical leave law. And candidates for governor and Congress who included paid leave on their websites were more likely to win, controlling for other factors.

The questions are now when and how the United States will guarantee paid leave — not if. That is a sign of real progress, and it means that policy details now matter tremendously. What happens next will determine whether we seize the opportunity to enact a tested, strong policy that reduces inequality and works for all of us, or exacerbate the disparities that currently exist. The choice for any lawmaker should be an easy and obvious one.

We need a national paid family and medical leave policy that covers the full range of health and caregiving needs families have today. It needs to “check all the boxes“ by being affordable and covering leave for moms and dads, for family caregivers and for serious personal illnesses and injuries. It also needs to provide a substantial amount of leave and protect against retaliation for taking leave. Anything less will do more harm than good.

Sunday marked 24 years since the Family and Medical Leave Act was signed into law. Its guarantee of job-protected, unpaid leave was historic and it has been used more than 200 million times, transforming our nation’s workplaces. The National Partnership is proud to have drafted and led the fight for it. But we also know that too many people aren’t covered by the law’s protections or cannot afford unpaid leave. It is past time to advance its vision.

So, let’s make sure our communities and lawmakers know it’s absurd that the United States doesn’t have a paid leave law — and what a national program should look like. Make your voice heard and demand action on a comprehensive paid family and medical leave plan. Share our video with your networks and elected officials. Together, we can keep up the drumbeat for the kind of change the country’s workers and families, businesses and our economy truly need.

And as National Partnership Vice President Vicki Shabo said at the MAKERS Conference, when we do that – when we use our collective power to demand that lawmakers take action – “women and men will be better able to care for themselves and their loved ones, succeed at their jobs, and strengthen the nation. And someday soon, no one will relate to the woman in our video.”