An illustration of a woman breastfeeding while juggling a book and various electronics.

Women's Work

Why Family Leave Is Finally Gaining Steam

Despite the sexism oozing from the White House, states are gradually tackling paid family leave, signaling to Washington that a national policy is long overdue. Should we hold our breath?

This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members.  We urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?

Ky Dickens was standing in front of a Maine audience after a screening of Zero Weeks, her new film about America’s lack of paid family leave, when a man in the back of the room stood up to ask a question.

She braced herself—as women often do when men stand up at their events. But he was on her side—vociferously. “Why can’t we figure this out?” she remembers him asking. “I’m outraged! This is the lowest hanging fruit!”

And that kind of response may explain why, in a moment when a reactionary, sexist administration is wreaking havoc on gender equality at the federal level, the momentum for paid family leave is nonetheless making steady inroads, state by state, politician by politician, person by person. “There is a lot of outrage when people see the film,” Dickens says. “But that outrage turns into advocacy.”

We seem to on the cusp of a watershed moment–and it’s been a long time coming, two decades to be precise, since Bill Clinton signed the Family Medical Leave Act, requiring unpaid family leave. As that law’s 20-year anniversary approaches, activists who have been pushing for policies that help working families in the interim told DAME the same thing: the tide is finally turning.

Yet the recent victories also highlight what’s missing. As a handful of states—California, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Washington State and Washington, D.C.—and cities like San Francisco are setting the pace on the issue and implementing successful policies, they also highlight the lack of unified national policy beyond the FMLA. And the folks fighting for paid leave have their hearts set on the ultimate goal: a federal law, currently introduced in Congress as The FAMILY Act (sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York), which would nationalize paid leave, essentially through an insurance program.

Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families thinks the recent momentum is arising precisely because the situation for so many families—spread thin geographically and financially—is dire. She traces the upswing in demand in the past decade to several factors, including the needs of millennials who are thinking of having kids or caring for older parents. This group is being particular in choosing a job or even a state to live in–and they want paid leave. Shabo says there is growing demand for action from HR professionals and some business leaders who think family-friendly policies help them retain workers, and politicians who see this as a winning issue with constituents–and maybe, as the political class gets incrementally more diverse and younger, they recognize it as a need for themselves. It’s worth noting, for instance, that Gillibrand is one of two working mothers in the Senate with school-age children, and DeLauro is a grandmother to young kids. Their cause has even gotten a boost from research that shows states with these new leave policies don’t suffer economically.

And then there are the inadvertent activists, “people in real time dealing with challenges around caring for a new child or an ill parent or spouse, and realizing that they don’t have protections—or that they do but are among the few,” Shabo says. “Everybody right now is feeling a squeeze. A squeeze related to money, a squeeze related to time, and a squeeze related to care.”

Dickens is an example of someone whose personal frustration turned into a broader mission. She had been working at the same film production company for 11 years, but she was the first woman there to become pregnant, so she had to negotiate a maternity leave policy. “What they came back with at first was two weeks,” she told me. “It felt like such an insult to my loyalty. It became a big argument and in the process of fighting for that time, at one point, my job was threatened.”

She ended up with two weeks of leave and using the rest of her vacation and sick time to give herself six weeks, total—but the fight was so bruising that, “I felt more or less forced out the door,” she says. She eventually quit that production company to work on Zero Weeks, which focuses on the appalling lack of paid leave policy for Americans.

In this arena, the film notes, we are worse off than our counterparts in all but three countries in the world—Swaziland, Lesotho, and Papua New Guinea, which also have no government-funded maternity leave. As Dickens explains it in the film, this is thanks to a toxic cocktail of unlimited business lobbying, our bootstrap mentality, and frankly, misogyny.

Activists agree. “Yes, there is a belief that business should have complete freedom in America,” says A Better Balance’s Sherry Leiwant, who advocated for the New York paid leave bill. “But I don’t think that’s the complete answer.” She notes that there was only a smattering of business opposition to New York’s program—indeed, most of the state programs that have passed are run like insurance, with workers paying in via payroll taxes. So it actually helps smaller employers afford to give their employees leave. “It’s been ignored because women’s economic issues have been ignored,” says Leiwant.

Ellen Bravo of Family Values at Work, an activist profiled in Zero Weeks, nails why the issue feels particularly poignant during this season of reckoning for working women. “The reason we’re the outlier in the world is the undervaluing of women’s work,” she told me. “We see this as something women do in the home for free.”

Indeed, the fraught balancing of work and family—of needing job security when caretaking becomes an immediate priority—has always been a pressing concern for more economically and socially vulnerable women: women of color, immigrants, working and lower-class women, the women who have always been in the workforce regardless of social norms. There’s a linked cycle of oppression at work here: the devaluing of care work as something that somehow doesn’t “count” as real labor–though anyone who has cared for a newborn or aging parent knows it’s incredibly taxing labor–and the further marginalization of the people who do that work, including domestic workers.

Even now, the issue remains skewed by privilege: Tech companies like Facebook and big corporations may vie for talent and make headlines with generous new leave packages, but that’s not the standard.

In fact, even within some companies, the disparity is apparent. A recent study, cited in Fortune, notes that employees at Starbucks headquarters “receive 18 weeks of paid parental leave for mothers and 12 weeks for fathers while hourly, in-store employees who become new moms get only six weeks of paid leave.” Meanwhile Wal-Mart “provides 10 to 12 weeks of fully paid leave for birth mothers who are corporate employees, but just six to eight weeks at partial pay for birth moms who are full-time hourly workers.” As for part-time workers, an increasing share of the workforce, they’re out of luck.

So what do these families do? Go back to work while still healing. Scrap together sick and vacation time and then go back too soon. Lose their jobs. Send their kids to subpar daycare centers.

Right now, only 5 percent of low-wage employees have access to any paid family leave at all. According to recent studies, only about 14 percent of the entire workforce had access to paid family leave as an employee benefit, while “five percent of first-time mothers who worked during their pregnancy in 2006–08 were let go from their jobs during pregnancy or within six months of childbirth, 22 percent quit their jobs, 42 percent took unpaid leave.” So the people who are losing out have the most to gain by statewide policies. In California, for instance, low-income and minority mothers increased their leave-taking dramatically.

For her film, Dickens interviewed families across geographic and demographic lines, including many low-wage workers. She follows parents who prematurely give birth to—and lose—twins, and spends time with a young mom with breast cancer who limps through her job, wracked with pain. The film’s subjects have sick parents and preemies and all the unexpected joys and pain that life throws at every single one of us. And they all talk about the difference paid leave might have meant: a chance to heal and move forward. To its credit, the film spends considerable time talking about how the lack of parental leave can hurt non-gestational parents, including dads and moms who want to be there to support their partners and bond with new kids.

Zero Weeks provides hope by documenting the state-by-state, city-by-city effort to pass new laws, connected to similar campaigns for paid sick days. This month, as FMLA prepares to turn 20, there is a major milestone: New York’s law, one of the nation’s most comprehensive, is finally taking effect. Footage of local hearings on the issue and interviews with activists who are getting revved up make it clear that in a sense, this is just the beginning.

Ellen Bravo, a long-time campaigner for paid leave through her organization Family Values at Work, is extensively featured in the film, along with her grassroots efforts to change the status quo. On the phone, Bravo told me to take heart: She thinks family leave may go the way of marriage equality, building steam until it’s unthinkable any other way. Looking at recent history, she has a point. California passed its modest bill back in 2002. Then it took seven years–till 2009, for a measure to pass in New Jersey. The next few came more rapidly: 2014 in Rhode Island, and new programs are coming in New York, Washington State, and Washington DC, with a few more expected in the coming years.

The state laws are largely designed like an insurance program, with payroll deductions that result in payouts when the leave is taken. They help those fabled small businesses that want to give leave to their employees but can’t afford to shoulder the double cost of paid leave and hiring a replacement. And they clearly help families.

The momentum, in other words, in in the right direction—and politicians are jumping on board, at least paying lip service to the idea. Some proposals may be terrible, but “the debate is now about how, not whether, to support working parents,” Bryce Covert wrote during the presidential campaign.

Still, even as places like Massachusetts, Colorado, and New Hampshire gear up to vote on their own measures, activists know that the best way to do this is still sweeping federal legislation. “It’s actually quite an undertaking to set up a program at the state level,” Shabo says. “You need infrastructure, you need funding and that creates challenges and inefficiencies that would be better solved by a national paid leave program like the FAMILY Act.” In other words, it would be nice to no longer be at the bottom of the global pile on this issue.

Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.

Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.

But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.

Support Dame Today

Become a member!