Speaking of Women's Rights: Family Un-Friendly

Friday, February 22, 2013

Family Un-Friendly

Last Sunday, the New York Times ran a terrific piece “Why Gender Equality Stalled” by Stephanie Coontz of the Evergreen State College.  If you haven’t read it yet – do it!  Professor Coontz examines why we still have to fight so hard for women’s equality, even on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique.

While the article is outstanding, what struck me the most was this map accompanying the piece showing which countries have adopted policies for paid maternal leave:

map source

Yes, that’s right.  America is almost alone in failing to guarantee any paid leave from work to families with new children – putting us in ranks of Papua New Guinea, Liberia, and Suriname. 

Considering how far the U.S. is lagging, you’d think we’d be trying to address this problem urgently.  But instead, we’re fighting just to avoid going backwards, at least in Washington State.

Consider what’s happening now in Olympia. 

In 2007, Legal Voice and our allies won passage of a Family Leave Insurance bill in Washington.  The legislation was modest in scope.  It provided for only up to 5 weeks of paid family leave after the birth or adoption of a child, with a weekly benefit of $250.   Still, it was a major step forward; at the time, only California provided any form of family & medical leave insurance to workers in its state (New Jersey has since adopted a similar program).

However, the legislation did not include a funding mechanism, and implementation of the program was delayed after the Great Recession hit in 2008.

But now, a proposal has been introduced in the Legislature that would not only provide a funding source, but would expand coverage.  This legislation (House Bill 1457/Senate Bill 5292) would  authorize funding for Family & Medical Leave Insurance (FMLI) through a payroll premium starting at $1 per week for the average worker and their employer.  It would also expand FMLI to provide 12 weeks to carefor a worker or family member’s serious health condition and 12 weeks to care for a new child.

The bill ought to be a no-brainer (look again at the map!).  But instead of supporting this proposal, some legislators are actually trying to move us backwards by pushing a bill to repeal even the modest 2007 Family Leave Insurance law. 

And they have the support of the Seattle Times, which has urged repealing the program on the grounds that “the state should focus its limited resources on higher priorities” and “paying employees to take time off is a decision best left to individual companies.”

Really?  It’s not a high priority for the state to help families when they have a new child?  We should be more like Papua New Guinea than the rest of the world in enacting sensible work-family policies?

Hypocritically, so many opponents of family and medical leave insurance also oppose a woman’s right to choose.  They want to force a woman to continue her pregnancy, yet would deny her family basic economic security and support after the child is born.  To paraphrase Barney Frank, they’re “pro-life” only from conception to birth.

So if you’re in Washington, take a moment to contact your legislators and urge them to support Family & Medical Leave Insurance (HB 1457/SB 5292) and to oppose legislation to repeal the law (SB 5159).  Family economic security should be everyone’s concern, not just a benefit available only to high-wage workers who are least likely to need it.