Women’s Equality Depends on Equal Access to Family Friendly Workplace Policies

by | Aug 26, 2015 | Paid Leave

Today, Women’s Equality Day, commemorates the victory 95 years ago when America’s women won the right to vote. The day is a symbol of women’s continued fight for equal rights in this country, and a reminder of the barriers to women’s equality that persist today – in our nation’s workplaces, health care system and throughout society.

This month brought significant reminders of workplace inequalities and the nation’s pervasive lack of access to paid family and medical leave. First, Netflix announced a new parental leave policy that allows eligible employees to take “unlimited” time off the year after a child’s birth. At a time when just 13 percent of private sector workers nationwide have access to paid family leave, it was a groundbreaking move.

But Netflix’s action was undermined, to some extent, by the company’s decision to apply the new policy to only some of its employees. More than 400 workers in Netflix’s distribution centers – the very workers who tend to be paid lower wages and who have more physically demanding jobs, will be excluded. And they are the workers we know need paid leave most urgently.

The day after Netflix’s announcement, Microsoft expanded its paid parental leave policy to 12 weeks of fully paid leave, with an additional eight weeks of disability leave available to birth mothers. A few days later, Adobe announced significant expansions to its paid leave policies, including 16 weeks of parental leave with an additional 10 weeks available to birth mothers, 10 weeks of personal medical leave, and four weeks of family caregiving leave.

All of these announcements represent very welcome progress. The trend of businesses stepping up to establish paid leave policies continues. More people in this country are, or will soon be, guaranteed paid leave. Businesses, particularly those in the tech industry, are feeling pressure to compete for top talent through family friendly workplace policies like paid leave. These are all good things.

Still, these developments remind us of the serious – and unacceptable – inequities in access to paid leave within companies and throughout our country. When it comes to supportive policies at work, all is not equal. And the harm that does to workers, their families, businesses and our economy is real. That is why public policy standards are needed so badly.

Right now, access to paid leave when you need it most – when you or your partner gives birth; when you adopt a child; when you have a heart attack or need surgery; when your parent is diagnosed with cancer and needs care; or when your child is injured and needs emergency treatment – depends entirely on winning the “boss lottery” or living in one of the three states that have paid family leave programs.

True equality for America’s workers requires equal access to policies that make it possible for them to care for themselves and their families while making ends meet. This is especially true for women who are both breadwinners and caregivers for their families. In the case of paid family and medical leave, equality means having access regardless of employer, income or job responsibilities, parental status, or geographic location.

The Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act would guarantee just that. It would create a national paid family and medical leave program that would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of paid leave for their own serious health condition; the serious health condition of a child, parent or partner; the birth or adoption of a child; or for certain military caregiving needs – regardless of where they work, who they work for, and whether they work full or part time.

Too many workers will continue to be left behind if we do not establish a national baseline like the FAMILY Act. Once it is in place, companies can build on the law with policies like those at Netflix, Microsoft and Adobe. In fact, that’s exactly what happened when the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) created an unpaid leave standard more than two decades ago. States and employers have since expanded upon the FMLA, and the country is better off as a result.

This Women’s Equality Day, in light of all of the recent attention to paid leave and the need for policies that protect all workers, let’s remind Congress that the fight for equal rights for women is far from over. Ensuring equality in our workplaces through public policy standards like the FAMILY Act is essential to achieving women’s equality and advancing equal opportunity for all.