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Making the Road in New York: A Model for Work-Family Policy Change

Making the Road in New York: A Model for Work-Family Policy Change

In New York City this week, just one day after Mother’s Day, working families and activists gathered to discuss their efforts to really value mothers — through policies that reflect the realities of the 21st Century workforce. The event, hosted by the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, is one of five regional events leading up to White House Summit on Working Families, June 23 in Washington, D.C.

And New York City was the perfect location. The region has become a hotbed of forward-thinking work and family policies recently.

The event brought together the region’s top advocates working to put families first: elected officials, activist, policy and business leaders who really get it. Included in this group was Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on expanding paid sick days and ensuring universal pre-kindergarten for every four-year-old in the city. He’s made good on both campaign promises within his first six months on the job. And Secretary of Labor Tom Perez gave an impassioned keynote about how work-family policies are the most important tool for spurring our economy and rebuilding our nation. Secretary Perez shared his own experience of making time to coach his children’s sports teams — and how impossible that is for parents working two or three jobs to get by.

The NY Democratic delegation was in full force, too, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler, sponsor of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a bill that would ensure pregnant women can’t be fired or pushed out simply because they request temporary accommodations due to their pregnancy. As was Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who explained why she introduced the FAMILY Act, legislation that would guarantee up to twelve weeks of paid family and medical leave, and put the U.S. in line with 178 other countries. And Representatives Charlie Rangle, Nita Lowey and Jose Serrano all noted the unwillingness of many in Congress to discuss key issues like pay equity and the minimum wage, both critical economic security measures for all families.

Jason’s story, a video produced by Family Values @ Work that was shown at the Summit, visualized these issues for participants all too well. A New Jersey father whose twins were born premature, Jason and his wife were able to keep their babies home until they were six months old because New Jersey state passed paid family leave insurance in 2006. Like many NJ, CA and RI dads (and moms), Jason wasn’t penalized economically for being a responsible parent.

The forum ended with a talk by Valerie Jarrett, special assistant to President Obama, who shared her struggles as a single working mom and then opened the room for discussion. You can imagine the comments. They are your concerns and mine. Not enough time off to care for aging parents; paternity leave that is non-existent or too short to allow fathers to bond with their newborns; a lack of paid sick days that forces mothers to lose pay when their children are sick.

As Jason’s story and Valerie Jarrett’s experience illustrate, America must catch up to the rest of the world. Our families and our economy need effective workplace policies if we’re going to build a middle class and pull families out of poverty.

We need a living wage so workers can be effective on the job and at home. We need to close the wage gap so working women and minorities aren’t discriminated against and have more money to spend as consumers. And we need paid sick days, which are not only morally right, but are sound fiscal and business policy.

The NY Forum underscored government’s proper role in our society. They helped initiate and convene a national conversation on work-family issues, lifting up what works for families and businesses across the nation. It’s a conversation that will continue at the water cooler and around the dinner table — and one all elected officials should be taking up in the halls of government.

Balancing Caregiving and Work

Courtesy: Inside E Street, AARP

An estimated 42 percent of working Americans say they’ve provided care for an older family member within the past five years. Some of the lucky ones can benefit from the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

But that only covers 55 percent of employees, and even then, coverage applies only when caring for a spouse, young child or parent. Other caregivers take care of family members while maintaining full-time work, and many lose or leave those jobs as a result. Though “family-responsibilities discrimination” lawsuits are increasing, adult caregivers currently have little legal recourse.

AARP’s Inside E Street explores a growing predicament as the U.S. population ages. Please view the “Balancing Caregiving and Work” and “Family Friendly Workplaces” segments of this show that was aired in June 2012.

Why We Need the Family Act

Last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (Family Act), a bill that would create an insurance plan to provide paid family and sick leave to every employee.

The bill would benefit millions of hardworking individuals and families across the country, many of whom have faced devastation as a result of not having paid family leave. These include individuals and families whose stories I will never forget.

During a work and family briefing on Capitol Hill, a young woman testified about having her baby on Thursday and returning to work the following Monday. On a recent panel, a restaurant worker explained how difficult it was to be denied precious time off during her mother’s final days of life. Then there’s a dear friend who returned to work only one week after a full hysterectomy — against her doctor’s orders.

These are but a handful of the tragedies that I’ve witnessed — and that happen everyday in small towns and communities across the country — because the United States lacks a system of paid family leave. While some workers can cobble together leave time, too many Americans don’t even have the option. Only 12 percent have paid leave from an employer. Half of female workers in the U.S. have no income whatsoever while on maternity leave.

Since 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), legislation that allows workers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical leave, has been used more than 100 million times. But 40 percent of workers fall through the cracks of the FMLA. For millions, the law is a non-starter, as it is unpaid.

Working people who live close to or below the poverty line, especially the millions who continue to feel the long-lasting sting of our slow recovery, disproportionately bear the brunt of our nation’s lackluster family leave laws. And those who need paid family and medical leave most — people of color, single women and low-wage workers — are least likely to have access.

A recent fact sheet published by the U.S. Women’s Bureau on the economic status of women of color shows that almost half (45 percent) of black families and 25 percent of Hispanic families are supported by women heads of household, compared to 12 percent of Asian families and 16 percent of white families. Unpaid leave isn’t an option when the sole caretaker is also the sole breadwinner.

According to the same fact sheet, 31 percent of single-mother families live in poverty compared to 6% of two-parent households. We know that full-time work doesn’t necessarily pull one out of poverty, either. Approximately 20 percent of Hispanic and 16 percent of Black families with female heads of household worked full-time, the entire year, and still lived in poverty.

These are women who return to work a few days after giving birth, family members who long to be present when a loved one is dying. And these are the children who spend the least amount of time with their parents when their brains and personalities are developing.

A parent’s ability to care for an infant, or a son’s need to take time off to care for a sick mom, should not be determined by how much that individual earns or the size of their employer. Any improvements to the FMLA must account for the entire population. As our nation considers a system of paid family and medical need, we must ensure that those with the greatest need are able to use it.

The Family Act is a step in the right direction.

The bill would create a national insurance pool to provide partial income for up to 12 weeks of leave for employees to welcome a newborn, recover from on illness or care for a sick family member or domestic partner. It is an inclusive model that covers workers regardless of their employer size. And it recognizes that more than half the population works for a small business and that these workers care as much about their families as those working for large employers.

The Family Act will go a long way towards ensuring that all workers — especially those with few other options — can demonstrate the devotion they have to their family members. It will make it possible for low-wage and part-time workers, people of color, and so many others who play by the rules to be there for their loved ones when it counts the most. Congress should do its part for American workers — when they need it most.

Note: This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post here

Rep. Nancy Pelosi Rallies Support in Washington State for Women’s Economic Agenda

U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Representatives Suzan DelBene and Adam Smith joined hundreds of workers and parents in Seattle November 25 for a forum on Pelosi’s economic plan: When Women Succeed, America Succeeds.


“For too long, women in Seattle and across the country have been waiting to receive the equal treatment and opportunities they deserve,” said Pelosi. “The House Democratic economic agenda for women and families knocks down barriers that prevent women from reaching their full potential at home and in the workplace.  When women receive equal pay, our economy prospers.  When women can balance their work and family life, American society thrives.  When all women succeed, America succeeds.”

It’s a bold agenda – one that recognizes the key role women play in the nation’s workforce. Nearly half of all workers are women and 40 percent of working women are the primary breadwinners in their families.

Introductory remarks from Representatives DelBene and Smith were buttressed by stories from Washington women  working to improve local and statewide policies impacting their families.

Evelin Vargas-Bogarin shared how limited access to paid leave created a family crisis when her father needed kidney surgery. Kristin Bennett discussed how her family’s inability to afford childcare forced her husband to quit his job in order to care for their three young daughters. And Makini Howell, owner of Plum Bistro (pictured above with Rep. Pelosi), shared how smart family policies for working families benefit local businesses like her own.

“My employees are a big part of my success as a businesswoman,” stated Howell. “Commonsense workplace policies – like strong wages and paid sick leave – allow my employees, my business and my customers’ businesses to thrive.”

The Seattle-Bellevue metropolitan area has the worst gender wage-gap in the country, with women earning only 73 cents to every dollar earned by men. Yet, childcare in Washington state is the ninth-most expensive in the country, consuming 14 percent of median income for married families and over 46 percent of income for single mothers. Further, an estimated one million Washington workers, one-third of the state’s workforce, have no access to paid sick leave.  Pelosi’s plan seeks to address those  economic insecurities, faced by a growing number of Washington women and families.

Reflecting broad support for such measures, a total of twenty-nine local organizations sponsored the event, including the Washington Work and Family CoalitionMomsRising and EOI. All three are working to pass state-level policies that address the economic insecurities facing Washington women and their families.

“As much progress as we’ve made, we still have antiquated policies that assume every household has a full-time caregiver. That doesn’t match reality,” stated Marilyn Watkins, policy director at the Economic Opportunity Institute and spokesperson for the Washington Work and Family Coalition. “Together, we can pass public policies that support working families and create opportunities for upward economic mobility,” said Watkins.

Full list of sponsoring organizations:

  • American Association of University Women – Washington
  • American Association of University Women – Seattle
  • Children’s Alliance
  • Economic Opportunity Institute
  • El Centro de la Raza
  • Faith Action Network
  • Healthy Tacoma
  • King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence
  • League of Women Voters of Washington
  • Legal Voice
  • MomsRising
  • Main Street Alliance
  • Seattle & King County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
  • NARAL Pro-Choice Washington
  • National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington
  • OneAmerica
  • Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest
  • Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action
  • Seattle Human Services Coalition
  • Seattle Office of Civil Rights
  • SEIU 1199
  • SEIU 775NW
  • SEIU 925
  • Teamsters 117
  • Teamsters Joint Council 28
  • UFCW 367
  • Washington Bus
  • Washington State National Organization for Women
  • Washington Work and Family Coalition
  • Women’s Funding Alliance

This blog originally appeared at

Siblings Are Family, Too

Anne Marie Pearson of West Chester, Pennsylvania, took care of her sister, Joanne, five years ago when she was dying of cancer. “This was a responsibility I couldn’t walk away from – this was family,” Anne Marie said. When she requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), she was told the law didn’t cover siblings. Anne Marie had to leave her job of 17 years. Since then, she has spearheaded efforts to pass a state bill that would expand the definition of family to include siblings, grandparents and grandchildren.

Anne Marie Pearson and family

Anne Marie Pearson and family


That bill, HR 298, had a hearing today before the Pennsylvania House Committee on Labor and Industry. Below are excerpts from the testimony of Family Values @ Work Director Ellen Bravo.

In 1995 I was appointed to the bipartisan Commission on Leave appointed by Congress to evaluate the impact of the Family and Medical Leave Act. We held three hearings across the country to gather input from employers and employees. At one of these sessions, a woman testified about losing her brother to AIDS. She and her siblings were all able to be with him in his final weeks. She thanked the Commissioners as she described how much the physical and psychological care they were able to give meant to him and to them.

“Thank your employer,” we had to tell her. “Employers can always go further than the law, but FMLA does not include siblings.”

I thought of that woman a few nights ago, when I attended the celebration of the life of Jeremiah, who died of a rare form of cancer at age 26. When he was first diagnosed seven years ago, his older sister, Moriah, had just accepted a job in Minnesota and was ready to move from their hometown of Milwaukee. She never left town because she wanted to be with her brother as he battled this disease. This fall, when it was clear that Jeremiah was out of options and would have to enter hospice care, Moriah requested FMLA leave.

“Sorry,” her employer told her. “The Family and Medical Leave Act doesn’t include siblings.”

For Moriah – as for any of us – that was like being told, “Siblings aren’t family.”

California recently passed a law similar to the one you are considering. One of those who spearheaded that fight is Donald Bentley, a civil engineer. With the help of a full-time caregiver, Donald provides round-the-clock care for his brother George, who has muscular dystrophy and is a quadriplegic. Donald has testified about the penalties and discrimination he’s experienced at work because of these caregiving responsibilities which make it impossible for him to accept last-minute requests to work overtime. Should George have needed emergency care, Donald would not have been allowed to use family leave.

Trish Hughes Kreis also worked in support of that California bill. She lives in Sacramento, where she manages a local law firm and cares for her brother, Robert, age 47, disabled due to lifelong intractable epilepsy. Fortunately, Trish’s employer has worked with her while she juggles Robert’s numerous appointments and hospitalizations. Trish points out that reflecting the realities of family is not a favor, but a smart business move,

“As a manager,” she says, “I know that unpaid, protected leave has not placed an undue burden or cost to our business. It may be an inconvenience to find temporary coverage, but it is not insurmountable, especially considering the benefits to the firm of standing by our employees. This flexible approach has saved us money by reducing turnover costs.” Trish is grateful to have an understanding employer – but she knows not everyone does.

Last February, on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the FMLA, President Bill Clinton spoke about the importance of this legislation – and the need to expand it. He reminded the public that laws are not monuments; they’re meant to improve over time. “People desperately want to have successful families, to be good parents, to have a job and succeed at it,” he said. “If you take one away to get the other, the country pays a grievous price and every life is diminished.”

He was right. We all lose – the employer who has to replace an experienced employee, the sibling who struggles to pay bills, the roofer who loses the job because the client can no longer afford the repair and will have to make do with buckets under the leaks; the deli owner whose place she can’t afford to patronize.

We know that the involvement of loved ones is critical to the recovery of brain trauma patients. According to Dr. Stephan Mayer, director of the Neurological Intensive Care Unit at Columbia University Medical Center, “The common denominator is a present, loving and supportive family. I can’t say how important it is to have your loved ones around you helping you battle through.” For many families, that loved one is a sibling, or grandparent, or grandchild.

We hear the same analysis from hospice workers. At the memorial for Jeremiah in Milwaukee, one of the nurses who’d cared for him told me: “We provide excellent care, but we can’t be in the room 24/7. The hands of loved ones that perform dozens of acts throughout the day keep patients resilient – and when the time comes, eases their passing.”

You don’t have to be a neurosurgeon or a hospice nurse to know what a difference this care means to a patient – and to the family member who provides it. Susan Lamb in Biddesford, Maine is someone who was able to care for her grandmother in her final month of life. She summed up what many of us know: “I can tell you that a sad month was also very rich with moments of intimacy. You cannot put a price on peace, but I’d wager you that unresolved regret is very expensive.”

Anne Marie Pearson refers to HB 298l as “Joanne’s Law.” I’d like to rename it “Joanne and Anne Marie’s law.” Every one of us can imagine how important it must have been to Joanne to have Anne Marie provide the constant, intimate care required with a terminal illness.

We all can say thank you to Anne Marie Pearson. This legislative body can make Joanne’s death a little less painful and that thank you so much more meaningful by passing this bill.

Pregnant Women Need a Break

by Carol Joyner

Any woman who’s gone through pregnancy hears the same advice: hydrate more and listen to the needs of your changing body.

Almost everything a pregnant woman does requires adjustment. Eliminating caffeine and alcohol, hydrating more frequently, avoiding strenuous activities – all are immediate considerations, activities women have control over. But what happens when pregnant workers have little to no control?


Pregnancy-related discrimination filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have risen significantly in the last decade. In New York alone, a fifth of the discrimination charges filed with the EEOC are related to pregnancy.
(Illustration/Christophe Vorlet/Boston Globe)



For women throughout the U.S., doing what’s right when you’re pregnant can bring unnecessary hardship. All too often, pregnant women are forced to choose between what’s best for them medically and what they need financially. Too many employers deny requests for simple workplace accommodations – a chair, an extra bathroom break, a bottle of water to drink –and fire pregnant women, forcing them to go on unpaid leave or quit their jobs at a time when they most need financial security.

The National Women’s Law Center and A Better Balance recently published a report shedding light on the difficulties that so many pregnant women face on the job. The stories they’ve collected detail a variety of abuses. Denial of fluids, being forced to stand, being refused bathroom breaks – all are common complaints about employers who, in denying these rights, often break the law.

During her pregnancy, Hilda Guzzman, a full-time Dollar Tree employee in Long Island, asked her boss for a stool to sit on while working at the register for 8-10 hours a day. The response? “You can’t get special treatment,” her boss declared, “since a man can’t get pregnant.” The pressure from standing all day caused bleeding and premature labor pains, landing Hilda in the emergency room every few days. Quitting was not an option: Guzzman needed the job to be able to cover her medical expenses and pay the rent.

Dr. Lucy William, an emergency room doctor, treated a pregnant cashier who arrived at a New York hospital with severe dehydration. Turns out her employer refused to let the cashier drink water at the register.

In most states, pregnant women lack basic job protections for pregnancy-related accommodations. The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) offers protection against discrimination – being treated differently from non-pregnant co-workers. But the law does not include safeguards should a woman need work adjustments as a result of her pregnancy, such as rest breaks, assistance with manual labor and recovery time following childbirth. As KJ Dell’Antonia writes in The New York Times, “Sometimes equal treatment is not enough to allow a woman to stay on the job.”

Fortunately, a growing movement of activists, organizations and elected officials are championing workplace fairness for pregnant women. Just recently, New York City took a major step in ensuring that pregnant women are not forced to choose between their health and their job. In a unanimous vote, the City Council passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which stipulates that employers in New York cannot force pregnant workers out of their jobs or deny them reasonable job modifications. The city joined a handful of states, including California, Illinois, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland and Texas, that have offered similar safeguards to pregnant women.

In Washington, legislators are also taking note. The federal Pregnant Worker’s Fairness Act (PWFA), re-introduced earlier this year in both the House, by Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), and the Senate, by Robert Casey (D-PA), would close existing loopholes, ensuring that workers have reasonable accommodation for pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions. In recognition of the 35th Anniversary of the PDA on October 31, groups from across the country are planning a week of advocacy to highlight the important milestone the PDA represents and to push for greater protections for pregnant women on the job.

As the economy changes, so too should our workplace protections. Three-quarters of women now entering the workforce will become pregnant while working. Many, particularly low-wage women working in retail and service jobs, know all too well the dangers associated with lacking basic work accommodations.

Legislative protection like the PWFA leaves us all healthier – women and families, employers and taxpayers alike. It improves the health of women and children, decreasing the likelihood of childbirth-related complications. It guarantees economic security for millions of pregnant women and their families. It strengthens our economy by protecting jobs. And it benefits small businesses’ bottom line through reduced turnover, increased employer loyalty and higher productivity.

Pregnant women in our country deserve better; their work has value and their children make up our future society. Think about your mom, your sister or daughter. If you agree that they deserve basic guarantees and opportunities, then join with millions of Americans who support the PWFA. It’s beyond time that pregnant women get a break.

Carol Joyner directs the Labor Project for Working Families. This blog also appeared on Huffington Post.