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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

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