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FMLA Anniversary: Dare to Imagine the World We Deserve

3:11 pm in Uncategorized by EllenBravo

Twenty-one. This number has come to symbolize adulthood. It means good luck in cards. But when it comes to the Family and Medical Leave Act, twenty-one stands for “too damn long” – too little progress over too many years.

Expectant Parents - The father-to-be embraces the mother's pregnant belly

21 years after it’s birth, can we extend FMLA to protect more families?

On August 5, 1993, Congress implemented the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), six months after President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law. For the first time, the United States established the principle that having a baby shouldn’t cost you your job or your health insurance. The law recognized that fathers as well as mothers need time to bond with newborns and that new babies aren’t the only ones who need care. Children, spouses and parents also experience occasional injuries or serious illness and need a hand. And each of us may need time to care for ourselves.

The FMLA includes up to 12 weeks unpaid leave for those purposes. If you’re eligible, your employer has to keep your job open and continue to pay any contributions they make toward health insurance.

It was a good start. Ask Vivien Mikhail in Maine (.pdf link), who used FMLA when her 16-month-old daughter suddenly lost her hearing, or Jennifer Pelton in Maryland (.pdf link), who was able to care for her medically fragile twins, how much it means to know your job and health care will still be there after dealing with family crisis. In fact, FMLA has been used more than 100 million times, with great success. More than half the time people used it for a personal illness. Men as well as women were also able to take time to welcome a new baby, tend to a seriously ill child, and care for an ailing parent or spouse.

But the law excludes a huge chunk of the workforce (.pdf link) – 40 percent – thanks to restrictions specifying that it applies only to companies of 50 or more, and covers only those who’ve been at that employer for at least a year and work at least 25 hours a week on average. Employers can always be more generous than the law and many are, but not enough.

FMLA doesn’t cover routine illness. Fortunately most kids don’t get leukemia, but they do all get stomach flus and nasty coughs; parents who follow doctor’s orders to keep them home can find themselves without a paycheck or sometimes their job. The law has a narrow definition of family, excluding siblings, grandparents and grandchildren. Same-sex couples who are legally married are covered if they live in a marriage equality state (and soon, anywhere in the U.S). And did I mention that the leave is unpaid?

So Melissa Bravo in North Carolina (.pdf link) had a baby and would have been covered – except she hadn’t been on the job for a year and was let go. Tyler Corvin (.pdf link) had to go back to work a week after his wife delivered by caesarean section. He really wanted to help care for her and the baby, but the couple couldn’t afford the financial hit.

Family values can’t end at the workplace door. We need workplace policies for the 21st century. That means fixing the FMLA to cover everyone and every family.

It means making wage replacement possible through the use of a social insurance fund, as three states – California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – have already done. More states want to do so. The $5 million State Paid Leave Fund proposed in the President’s budget would help, as will a smaller pot already made available by the Department of Labor.

But ultimately we need a national fund to cover everyone, such as the one that would be established under the FAMILY Act, (H.R.3712/S.1810), introduced by Senator Gillibrand in the Senate and Rep. Rosa DeLauro in the House. By pooling small contributions from employees and employers, this fund would enable those needing leave to have some vital income during an already challenging time.

We also need paid sick days – as nine cities and one state have already won – for those stomach flus and nasty coughs. More wins are on the horizon.

Let’s be honest. The laws we’re talking about in this country are minimum standards that are truly minimal. Think of Iceland, which has 9 months of paid leave – 3 for mothers, 3 for fathers, and 3 to share, paid for by a combination of national and employer funds; the country is moving to 12 months by 2016. If Iceland is too far away, think of Canada, where mothers of newborns can take 50 weeks at 55 percent pay.

What we’re fighting for is too damn little, but it’s a start. Join us – it’s been too damn long.

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Football and Family

4:18 pm in Uncategorized by EllenBravo

I’m a die-hard Green Bay Packers fan, but I have to hand it to Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, who was determined to be with his wife when she delivered their fourth child, even if it meant missing Sunday’s game against the Texans.

Tillman told the press on Wednesday, “At the end of the day, (family is) all you have. This game is important to me, but after what we went through with my middle child, to me football will always be second or third in my life. That was a great lesson learned to teach me that when I’m done playing football my family will still always be there for me.”  The player’s second child was born with a serious heart condition.

Some fans were outraged. But Tilman’s coach and teammates were fully supportive.

“It’s family first,” Bears Coach Lovie Smith said to The Chicago Sun Times. “If there is something you feel like you need to do for your family always do that. How we look at it is like an injury. If a player can’t go, it’s next guy up. We’ll keep going.”

Interestingly, several sports commentators echoed this sentiment. Rodney Harrison, now one of the hosts on Football Night in America, described a similar position he took when he played for the New England Patriots.  Asked what his coach, Bill Belichick had to say, Harrison replied, “Belichick didn’t say anything. Had he said anything, I would’ve said I don’t care how important the game is. Even if it’s the Super Bowl, I’m going to be there when my baby is born. It was understood. I was going to be there for my kids.”

Co-host Tony Dungy, former coach for the Indianapolis Colts, agreed. “My policy was, ‘always be with your wife. Your wife is much more important than any football game.’”

Chicago lost Sunday’s game, even with Tillman playing. The baby thoughtfully decided to wait until Monday to be born – a fact Tillman tweeted earlier in the week:  “@mikeandmike god, family, football… Baby is coming Monday don’t worry I’ll be there Sunday.”

But the NFL and the country gained from this discussion and the strong stand of these athletes.

The Gifts Mothers Really Want

8:53 am in Uncategorized by EllenBravo

My favorite Mother’s day gifts from my sons were their original stories, songs and poems. But what I needed when they were infants and toddlers was something children can’t deliver:  affordable time off when they were born and when they were sick.

Mother and Daughter, Canary Islands. Photo by Epsos.de

So for all those candidates and elected officials interested in the women’s vote and eager to prove their support for motherhood and families, here’s a sampling of what mothers want and need, not just one day a year but every day:

The right to care for a sick child or personal illness without losing our paychecks or our jobs. Moms need leaders to actively support the right for workers to earn paid sick days and champion local, state and federal policies that would guarantee this protection. Make sure no one has to choose between being a good parent and being a good employee – and that no one has to serve you flu with your soup.

The right to coverage under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Half of private sector workforce employees aren’t covered by this law because they work for an employer with fewer than 50 workers, haven’t been on the job for at least 12 months or work less than 25 hours a week. Moms need Members of Congress to work to expand FMLA to cover all employees after 90 days of employment.

The ability to afford leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Many who are covered under FMLA can’t afford to take the time without pay.  As a result, nearly three million eligible workers a year who need leave to care for their health or the health of a loved one don’t take it. And nearly 9 percent of those who do (including 20 percent for low-income families) are forced to rely on public assistance to keep food on the table. Moms need leaders to voice their support for policies to create family leave insurance funds like those that are working in California and New Jersey so that caring for a new or seriously ill child doesn’t trigger financial catastrophe.

The right to care for one’s partner regardless of their gender. Being able to marry who you love – and being able to care for one another in sickness as well as in health – shouldn’t be a gift, it should be a right.  Moms are glad to see more of our leaders standing up for the rights of all families by supporting marriage equality legislation and bills to expand FMLA access to same-sex partners.

The right to attend children’s school activities. Far too many children in this country never see their mom at a school play or sporting event because employers won’t let them take off work or re-arrange their schedules.  Mothers need leaders to support the right to use family leave to do what’s best for raising our children.

A recognition that men are parents, have parents and also need time to care. All the policies listed above are gender-neutral.  Moms – and dads – need leaders to end on-the-job punishment of men who want to be good fathers, sons and husbands. That will also boost women’s efforts to get men to share the work at home.

This list flows from deeply held American values: that no one should have to risk a job to be a good family member or put a loved one at risk in order to keep a job. Mothers want basic standards that guarantee these rights to everyone.

And candidates, if you don’t believe me, check the polls. More and more voters – from all political perspectives – say they’re more likely to support candidates who’ll make sure family values don’t end at the workplace door, and who understand that for the economy to recover, we need policies like these to help people stay employed and have money to spend at local businesses.

Doing the politically smart thing for moms is also doing the right thing for families and for our nation.

Stop the War on Mothers

2:40 pm in Uncategorized by EllenBravo

(photo: sabianmaggy/flickr)

I love the image of conservatives hiding behind the flag of motherhood to protect themselves against charges of gender insensitivity. It’s like kids who move the couch to cover up a stain and hope no one will notice.

By all means, let’s talk about the importance of motherhood.

We can start with the right to stay home after giving birth. Rush Limbaugh recently ranted that women have much more flexibility at work than men.

Unlike Rush, I like to begin with the facts.

The United States is one of only four countries in the world that doesn’t ensure new mothers can afford to stay home even for the briefest of times after they have a baby. Not surprisingly, millions of American mothers who’ve given birth go back to work before the six weeks needed just for healing. The majority of new mothers return before 12 weeks.

Why? For many, because they’ll lose their job otherwise. We have two laws protecting new mothers. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act says an employer can’t fire someone for being pregnant but doesn’t have to hold her job for her while she recovers from birth.

Really.

The other, the Family and Medical Leave Act, does protect the jobs of mothers and fathers who take leave to care for a newborn– but it excludes half the workforce because they work for a company with fewer than 50 employees, haven’t been on the job long enough or work part time.

And did I mention the leave is unpaid?

In fact, nearly half of employed mothers receive no pay whatsoever for the time they’re out on maternity leave. Of those who do draw some pay, most are using time they’ve accrued, like vacation.

As anyone with a newborn knows, having a baby is a great joy, but it is definitely not a vacation.

And what about when a child falls ill? Read the rest of this entry →