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Blog: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's Work for Women and Families

May 23, 2014 | By Carolyn Burstein, NETWORK Communications Fellow

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) celebrated its 20th anniversary in February of this year. Back in 1994, the legislation, which guaranteed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to workers recovering from a serious medical condition and those caring for seriously ill spouses, parents or children or for new children, was a significant advance for this country. However, the law's shortcomings are glaring:

  • Unpaid leave often is financially impossible for many people. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), that's the main reason people don't take family and medical leave.
  • Only applies to employers with 50 or more workers and excludes recent hires. Over 40% of the workforce isn't covered by the law nor are those who haven't worked for their current employer for at least 12 months or 1,250 hours.
  • Doesn't cover reasons people often need to take time off to care for their parents
  • Person needing care must have a "serious medical condition"
  • Doesn't cover care for grandparents, in-laws, siblings or adult children

Largely because of these shortcomings, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced "The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act" (S 1810/ HR 3712) in December 2013. The bill, which has not yet garnered Republican co-sponsors, would ensure 12 weeks of paid leave a year for a new child, to take care of an ill family member or to care for oneself. At this time only 12% of workers have access to paid leave through their employers. Just three states -- California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island -- have instituted paid family leave.

Paid leave would be available to every worker regardless of the number of employees in the firm or how long s/he had been employed there. The legislation would create a federal insurance program with an independent trust fund within Social Security where all employees and employers would make payroll contributions of .2 of 1% of wages (or roughly $1.50 per week for a typical worker). Like Social Security, wages would be taxed up to a cap of $117,000 per year. The person taking paid family leave would receive 66% of pay during leave up to a maximum of $4000 per month. However, it should be noted that two major flaws still exist: 1) care does not cover grandparents, in-laws, siblings or adult children, and 2) the definition of a "serious medical condition" still applies. In the latter two cases, "paid sick leave" laws should handle these situations.

If the Gillibrand-DeLauro bill becomes law, it would make many more Americans eligible for a benefit usually offered in the U.S. only at large companies such as Bank of America or Goldman-Sachs. The U.S. is the lone hold-out of all developed nations (and even many others not-so-developed) in not having a guaranteed maternity leave policy. Other countries offer up to 40 or more weeks of paid leave for mothers (and the U.K. passed a bill several months ago allowing moms and dads to share 50 weeks of paid leave).

Let's examine the human dimension. Without paid maternity leave, many women struggle to afford time off to take care of themselves and their newborns after the birth of a child. According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), over 40% have to take unpaid leave, and 25% either quit or are let go from their jobs when a new child arrives. The financial hardship is clear: 1/3 borrow money, dip into savings, and/or put off paying bills, while about 15% even have to go on public assistance to survive.

In her talks around New York State, Sen. Gillibrand reminds her audiences that in over 40% of families, women are the primary breadwinner. This fact alone places the Family bill (as it has become known) on an entirely different level -- a unique place where it deserves universal congressional support. Her own Senate office grants three months paid maternity leave, one of the most generous in Congress.

Only about 15% of men get paid family leave when a new child arrives. Although 85% take leave at that time, nearly all take a week or less. But paid leave entirely changes that situation, as data from California affirms. Since 2004, with paid leave, 75% of California men take off an average of three weeks with the birth of a child. The vast majority of these men have claimed in surveys that they want to spend more time with their children and split parenting equally with their partners, and paid family leave may be the key to achieving this goal.

Seniors, too, would benefit greatly from a policy allowing paid family leave since 62% of caregivers for parents and/or loved ones have full-time jobs and often find it difficult to take unpaid leave. Making sure that these caregivers are at least partially compensated will not only make it easier to take care of their loved ones, but it will also allow the burgeoning population of older Americans to stay in their homes rather than the less cost- effective path of going into nursing facilities.

CAP maintains that research findings show that paid family leave also benefits the economy in several ways:

  • Keeps people in the labor force and even expands it
  • Reduces the chance that family members will have to quit their jobs when someone becomes ill
  • Reduces turnover and employment interruptions to the benefit of employers. California's program alone has been estimated to save employers $89 million per year in reduced turnover costs. A study of companies listed in Working Mother magazine's "100 Best Companies for Working Mothers" finds that the availability and usage of work-family programs and policies have a positive impact on company profits.
  • Allows people to return to their original jobs where their experience can benefit the economy as a whole

It is possible that, as more states join California, New Jersey and Rhode Island in passing their own versions of the "Family Act," more momentum will be created for federal action.

As part of her efforts to foster job creation, Sen. Gillibrand is focused on an agenda to create economic empowerment and security for women because she feels strongly, according to her literature, that women are the key to economic recovery. In addition to paid family and medical leave discussed above, Kirsten, a working mom, is also heavily involved in the following efforts, most legislation of which she herself has introduced:

  • "Paycheck Fairness Act," and "The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013" to create fundamental fairness for women and economic stability for families and children, and to slow the decline of real wages.
  • "National STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Education Tax Incentive for Teachers Act" that provides STEM teachers who work in low-income, high-need schools a tax credit to cover 10% of their undergraduate tuition. Closely related to this effort is the "Undergraduate Scholarships for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Act" that would establish a new program under the National Science Foundation (NSF) to award 2,500 undergraduate scholarships each year for students' full tuition (program would seek out low-income, high-achieving students) during their last two years at a state institution. These efforts together would help ensure that all students have a path to higher education and success in careers that will define the economy of the future.
  • "Small Business Lending Enhancement Act of 2009," that would spur small business growth and create jobs by increasing access to loans from credit unions, especially for women. She is also working on legislation to reform the Small Business Administration to help women-owned businesses access federal contracts.
  • "Family Work Flexibility Act," that would offer businesses a $500 tax credit to help pay the cost of equipment, such as computers and telephone lines that would enable more employees, especially women, to work from home.
  • To make child care more affordable for working families, Gillibrand is working with Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to double the amount of credit with a maximum deduction of $6000 for families using "The Dependent and Child Care Tax Credit."
  • "The Strong Start for America's Children Act," would establish a federal-state partnership to increase the number of high-quality early childhood educators and improve the student-to-teacher ratios in preschools. It would also increase the hours per day and weeks per year families have access to high-quality early education programs.

These are just some of the numerous efforts Gillibrand has been espousing and advocating over the past few years since she entered the Senate in 2009. We would say that she is "one busy woman in support of other women," especially women who are among the poor and vulnerable of society. We at NETWORK are impressed with her agenda for the empowerment of women and, in turn, support her efforts as outlined above.

The recession has demonstrated that keeping a job is an absolute necessity. Losing one because of giving birth, helping a parent recover from a stroke, or care for a dying family member is a catastrophe that can be avoided at minimal cost, as the Gillibrand-DeLauro "The Family and Medical Insurance Act" shows. It's hard to understand the reluctance of any fair-minded Republican to support this bill since, as the National Association of Mothers' Centers says, it preserves the connection to self-sufficiency through employment so that the family can withstand a temporary emergency that allows them to care for each other without resorting to under-funded public programs paid for with tax dollars..

How long will it be before the U.S. joins every other industrialized country in the world in providing paid family and medical leave?