Speaking of Women's Rights: 06/17

Friday, June 30, 2017

What Paid Family & Medical Leave Means to Me—and What It Means for You

By Janet Chung

Some 25 or so years ago, I was just out of college and about to start law school, excited to be an intern at the then-Women’s Legal Defense Fund (now, the National Partnership for Women & Families). I was tasked with researching state family and medical leave laws as part of the effort to pass the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

To be honest, the research was somewhat academic to me at the time; interesting, but academic. I learned that the U.S. lagged behind almost every developed nation because we lacked (and still do) even paid maternity leave, let alone other forms of paid leave. I learned that some states had passed laws that protected people’s jobs when they had to take time off from work to care for their families or for themselves. I learned that it was important to make these laws gender-neutral, because even if women are in fact still most often the primary caregivers in their families and the ones to give birth, and therefore, the ones who need the time off, a law limited to maternity leave would keep that status quo and reinforce stereotypes. (I am quite sure I was not aware of the idea of transgender men becoming pregnant until 2008. [And to the naysayers: I stand by the utility of my People magazine subscription!])

In short, I knew being able to keep your job when you experienced a family health crisis or a new baby was important. Yet still, unpaid leave for those reasons wasn’t something I personally needed. Moreover, the idea of paid family and medical leave was, if you will, still but a gleam in my eye. Pie in the sky.

Several years later, I was back at the National Partnership as a legal fellow. At that point, after multiple vetoes, thanks to a change in the executive branch, the Family and Medical Leave Act had finally been signed into law (in 1993). I still remember my boss, the visionary Donna Lenhoff, telling me, “Now, we need to start working on paid leave.” She referred to it as “family leave insurance,” or “income” – because the idea was that funding wouldn’t be the sole responsibility of the individual, or any one employer. Rather, it would be like the unemployment insurance system – a system that relied on pooled funds to help soften the blow when the unpredictable rainy days came to pass.

Fast forward a few years. At this point, I am no longer a carefree single person, with parents in good health, with a good stable income, whose primary concern was where to go on my next vacation. I am now a working lawyer, a mother who’s experienced two pregnancies, one with some complications and that ended in a C-section. I am no longer part of a high-earning dual-income couple. My parents and children have been diagnosed with serious health conditions. I’ve watched close friends and colleagues experience caring for their parents through declining health and, often, up to death. They’ve also miscarried, been placed on bed rest, and had children, some with serious health conditions. Friends have had brain tumors, cancer diagnoses, hip replacements. Because that is life. 

So the passage of paid family and medical leave law in my adopted home state of Washington is particularly meaningful to me. I still consider myself lucky, privileged. But after those intervening decades, I now know – this isn’t just academic. This law is not merely a statement piece for gender equality. This is an important progressive policy that will transform thousands of lives. Like yours. Like mine.

Because let’s face it: America simply hasn’t been that great to too many of its denizens. So it’s wonderful, on the eve of the celebration of our nation’s birth, to have something to celebrate that shows the best of what our democratic process can create: a law that values the people and their families who are at the country’s heart.

Highlights of the new law:
  • Once the law goes into effect, you will be able to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave for family caregiving and 12 weeks of paid medical leave, with a combined annual cap of 16 weeks of paid leave. For those with pregnancy-related health complications, the cap is extended to 18 weeks. 
  • A key feature is portability; to be eligible, you have to have worked a threshold number of hours (820 hours in the qualifying period, which in most cases is the first 4 of the last 5 quarters), but the hours can be with different employers. Moreover, even self-employed individuals and independent contractors can elect coverage. 
  • The law also defines “family” broadly to include children, grandchildren, grandparents, parents, parents-in-law, siblings, and spouses – in recognition of the reality of family caregiving. 
  • The benefit is a progressive benefit; in other words, those who earn less will receive a larger percentage of their wage, while high-earning workers will receive a smaller percentage of their wage. 
  • The program will be funded by contributions from both employers and employees. Someone working full time at $13.50 an hour and making about $28,000 a year will pay $1.36 a week and the employer will pay $.80 a week. Employers with 50 or fewer employees are exempt from paying the employer share of the premium. 
  • Employees of employers with 50 or more employees are entitled to be restored to the same or equivalent job, as with the FMLA. 
For more information, check out our Washington Work & Family Coalition website, which will be updated with the most current information about the new law. You can join us in thanking the key legislators who made this policy a reality by signing our community card.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sense8 and Netflix's Questionable Commitment to Diversity

By Lulu Klebanoff

I watch Lito Rodriguez, a Mexican action movie star, take the stage at the São Paulo Pride Parade. Recently, sexually explicit photos of him and his partner were publicized without his permission, launching him out of the closet and into public scrutiny. His film career is collapsing around him, but he accepted the invitation to speak at the parade. He looks nervous and exposed, framed by a rainbow of balloons. But then, he finds his courage. “All my life I’ve had to pretend to be something I wasn’t,” he begins. “And to become what I wanted to become I couldn’t be what I am.” He hesitates, looking over to his partner. And then: “I am a gay man.” He smiles. I can see the relief in his eyes, the freedom of finally being out on his own terms. “I’ve never said those words in public before. I am a gay man!” He shouts it over and over, embracing any potential consequences for his career, his safety, and his relationships, as the crowd cheers. I am moved to tears by his courage, his joy, and his love.

Lito is fictional—he is a character on the Netflix original series Sense8, played by Miguel Ángel Silvestre. But his story has real and powerful effects, and his pride parade speech did make me cry. The second season of Sense8, released in May, was the perfect relief from today’s political climate: a diverse, hopeful story about love, empathy, and the power of human connection. Sense8 is the story of eight people across the globe who become psychically linked, and use their connection to fight against a mysterious organization that’s determined to hunt them down. But it’s the characters and their compelling personal journeys that have given the show its passionate following. Even when the storytelling may slow or the mythology may get jumbled, the ensemble, which is exceedingly diverse in race, gender, sexuality, and life experience, can still capture viewers’ hearts.

Which is why it came as such a shock when Netflix cancelled Sense8, less than a month after the release of the second season. Fans were furious, and even started a petition to get the show renewed, or at least to get an explanation for the cancellation. Netflix has been very cagey about the decision. Cindy Holland, VP of Netflix original content, said in a statement that there has never been “a more truly global show with an equally diverse and international cast and crew” but that the show “is coming to an end.” There’s some speculation that the show simply didn’t have a large enough viewership. Netflix doesn’t release its viewership numbers, but Netflix CEO Reed Hastings implied that the shows that get cancelled (of which there have only been four) are the ones people aren’t watching. But when combined with Netflix’s recent cancellation of The Get Down, a musical series about the birth of hip hop in 1970s New York (which doesn’t have a single white person in the main cast), the decision seems suspect. People are wondering why Netflix is cancelling shows with such important minority representation. Sense8 starred Jamie Clayton, a trans actress, as Nomi Marks, one of the few trans characters on TV. At the end of the second season, Nomi had just gotten engaged to her girlfriend Amanita. Now we will never see their wedding.

In the past, Netflix has been praised for its commitment to diversity, demonstrated by shows like Narcos and Orange is the New Black. But is Netflix any more committed to diversity than the competing cable networks? I looked at the shows from the 2016-17 season that Netflix is renewing, and compared them with the shows that The CW is renewing on three metrics of diversity: LGBTQ representation, racial minority representation, and female leads. On the first two counts, Netflix clearly does worse. While the CW has a queer character in the main cast of 55% of their renewed, scripted shows (plus a recurring queer character in an additional 27%), Netflix has a queer character in the main cast of only 29%. And while the CW has at least one person of color in the main cast of 91% of their renewed, scripted shows, Netflix meets this low bar with only 57%. Ideally, half of shows should have a female lead, and 48% of Netflix’s renewed, scripted shows do have a female lead (as compared to 45% of the CWs). But women aren’t very active behind the scenes at Netflix—less than 20% of Netflix’s writers, directors, and creators were found to be women in a 2016 study.

Netflix is getting better. In the 2016-17 season, it put out some amazingly progressive shows like One Day at a Time (about a Cuban American single mother, with a lesbian daughter), Grace and Frankie (about two 70-something women who are thrown together when their husbands declare their love for each other), Marvel’s Luke Cage (about a black, ex-con, bulletproof superhero), and Dear White People (about a group of black students at a primarily white Ivy League university). But the commitment to diversity they claim to have, means they need to stick by bold, diverse shows like Sense8 and The Get Down, even when the ratings aren’t what they hope. These stories are important—they treat people of color and queer people like human beings, in a world where these people are increasingly marginalized. As Lito Rodriguez says in his speech at the São Paulo Pride parade, “whatever it costs to be able to [kiss my boyfriend in public], I know in my heart that it is worth it.” Netflix needs to decide whether telling the stories of marginalized people is worth the risk. Because if Netflix only tells these stories when the ratings are good enough, that’s not really commitment to diversity at all.

Lulu Klebanoff is a legal intern at Legal Voice, and a rising sophomore at Yale University. In her free time she loves doing improv, writing, petting dogs, and slowly dismantling the heteropatriarchy. She is, admittedly, an avid bingewatcher of television, especially when that television has queer characters.

Photo courtesy of BagoGames | Creative Commons

Thursday, June 1, 2017

My Legal Voice Journey: Maddy Rasmussen on Her Internship & Creating The Safe Place Project

By Maddy Rasmussen

When I started at Legal Voice in the fall of 2015, I was filled with a level of excitement that nearly overran my whole body. I was immensely excited and proud to be involved with an organization that played a role in aiding all women. I knew when walking in that I wanted to make an impact on women in some way. I never realized exactly how much of an impact my project would make.

I would sit in on the staff meetings every Tuesday and I was able to hear about cases that Legal Voice was representing and discussions about news stories regarding women's rights. However, the one issue that always stuck out to me was access to reproductive healthcare, specifically abortion.

After many months of hearing about the issue and doing plenty of research on my own, I wanted to find a way to help women be able to find abortion clinics near them. In my junior year, I created a very rough google map pin pointing abortion clinics. When I reached my senior year, I wanted to be able to do something with this research. With abortion clinics and funds for abortion dwindling, the need for a resource like mine grew daily. After many weeks of brainstorming, I realized that the best possible way to present all of my information would be through a website, rather than making my map a public entity. And thus, the idea for The Safe Place Project was born.

The first few months were quite difficult. On the eve of an incoming president who was firmly opposed to abortion, I became afraid that my resource could be used against me and that I could potentially face the future that some abortion providers have to face daily.

There were days where I wanted to give up. Building a website and compiling all the data was no easy task, but I moved forward knowing that if my website was able to even help one woman, my whole project will have been worth it.

I am so proud of the project I’ve created, and so thankful to Legal Voice and Cedar River Clinics for supporting me. The Safe Place Project has already received such positive and powerful feedback from others in the reproductive health access community. Some of them are even interested in helping me keep this site going! I’ve learned so much in my two years with Legal Voice—about women’s rights, abortion access, even about myself—and I know I will continue to learn and grow as I head to college.

Please visit The Safe Place Project at www.safeplaceproject.com and let me know if you have any feedback! You can reach me at contactsafeplaceproject.com.