2012-10-08 13:00:35

Pushing Forward With Paid Leave, Workplace Flexibility for All


"Five of us were meeting for lunch and reminiscing about the women's movement. 'I was never one of those angry women,' one said. 'I'm still angry,' I blurted. My reaction surprised both me and my friends. Where did that come from? A source I hadn't tapped before. Upon reflection, I realized that I'm not angry enough to carry a placard down hot macadam streets in front of the nation's Capitol like I did in my thirties when I marched for women's rights. But now in my seventies, I'm still dissatisfied with the status quo… Why the anger, what did I expect?

"I expected that by the year 2012, grandmothers like myself would be able to tell their grandchildren how life used to be 'long ago' when families used to have to figure out for themselves how to be both wage earners and care givers." — Excerpt from The New Feminist Agenda, Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family, Madeleine M. Kunin, Chelsea Green Publishing.pp 1-2.

When I held a conference on onsite childcare in the workplace during my first term as Governor of Vermont in 1986, I expected that most employers would recognize that this was a great idea, both for their workers and their bottom line. When I established a grant program for early childhood education, I expected there would surely be a national program by now.

And when the unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act was signed by President Bill Clinton on Feb. 5, 1993, I expected that paid family and medical leave would soon come about.

None of that happened. The need for sensible family/work policies is greater today than ever, as more middle class families are struggling with work/life balance, and with balancing their household budgets.

Working moms, and increasingly working dads don't want a government handout, but they do need a hand up.

What is at the top of the list? The moms I have spoken with put workplace flexibility at the top of the list. Some family-friendly employers provide workplace flexibility, enabling employees to work at home or work shorter weeks or days.

But flexibility depends largely on what kind of a boss you have. In England and Australia, there is a law called "the right to request flexibility" which applies to everyone. An employee can request flexibility but it is not automatically granted. Both parties have to negotiate a solution, and if none is found, it is settled by a tribunal. Employers have found that the law works for them because it allows them to retain good workers.

Paid family and medical leave is next on the list. Present law, while helpful, is not the answer for a new mother who is forced to either go back to work right after birth, or take the leave, and give up her paycheck for six weeks. Most families simply can't afford to do that. It's hard to believe, but only three countries in the world do not have some form of paid maternity leave: Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and the United States of America.

The same story applies to paid sick days. Connecticut recently passed a limited paid sick days law for service workers in large companies. The winning slogan stated by the governor was, "I don't want someone to sneeze in my salad." Paid sick days are both a family/work issue and a public health concern.

Child care is on every young family's list — where to find quality care and how to pay for it. Again, most of the globe is ahead of us. It is high time for a national child care and early education policy, paid for on a sliding scale, to enable all children to get off to a good start. As a result of neuroscience studies we know that those early years are critical to a child's development. We also know that high quality childcare can help break the cycle of poverty.

One consequence of our lack of these policies is that the United States has the highest child poverty rate of any developed country — about 22 percent. The price we will pay for neglecting of the needs of these children will far outpace the cost of investing in their future.

Why has change been so molasses slow? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other big business interests have fought vigorously against these policies, but regardless of their opposition, two states now have paid leave laws — California and New Jersey. It can be done. Several states are providing early childhood education and all day kindergarten — despite tight budgets — because they know that this is the best place to put their scarce dollars.

How can we speed up the process of putting workplace flexibility, paid family and medical leave, childcare and early childhood education on the agenda of both political parties? We have to amplify our voices and make our demands clear. A useful strategy is to form new and powerful coalitions. Policies that are good for families with young children are also good for the elderly the disabled — and for that potentially enormous constituency — men.

These policies are no longer just "women's issues." They are working family issues — which means most of America.

We also have to play catch-up in electing more women to public office. Female membership in the Congress is 17 percent, which places us in 69th place among 168 countries. Yes, many men will support these issues, but women have the benefit of having experienced the struggles to raise their children while earning a paycheck. They have to have a seat at the table where their stories can be told.

In this election season, the most immediate step for women to take is to exercise the right to vote. Neither party has gone far enough in addressing these needs, but there is a clear distinction between the two, as reflected in the Paul Ryan budget. Instead of expanding programs like Head Start child care block grants and food stamps, they are cutting back.

Both parties are courting women's votes. Why? Because they know that women are very likely to determine the outcome of this election. That outcome will influence whether we move forward on family/work policies, or are pushed back.


Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of The New Feminist Agenda, and

Pearls, Politics and Power.


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