Labor Day 2017: Working families move closer to paid parental leave

For the nation’s poor working parents, the absence of paid leave is only the visible top of an iceberg of workplace challenges.

SOURCEEqual Voice

When millions of Americans gather at picnics and parades this Labor Day, they will have a new development to rally behind. One of the top concerns for working parents – national paid parental leave – is gaining momentum.

After lagging behind other industrialized nations for years – the U.S. is the only one of 41 developed countries without national paid leave for new moms and dads, Pew Research Center reports – political leaders are pushing for a national policy. President Donald Trump has his own plan for six weeks of paid leave. Democrats and Republicans are pushing competing plans in Congress. A conservative and a liberal think tank even put out a compromise proposal for consideration.

Paid parental leave may not be a staple of Labor Day speeches, but these proposals reflect how it is a growing part of the way corporate America compensates workers. In exchange, companies retain valued employees, cut training costs and boost morale, according to a report from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution.

But, low-wage workers have largely been left behind as corporate America has adopted paid leave policies.

Today, less than 5 percent of the lowest paid workers have access to some paid family leave, compared to 23 percent of workers in the top 10 percent of pay, according to the joint report, which cited U.S. Labor Department data.

While new federal proposals are encouraging, they don’t go far enough for parents on the lower end of the pay scale, advocates say. These workers need broader paid family leave to care for not only their children, but ailing parents, and themselves, they point out.

Working but poor parents have been organizing for these changes for years, and as new ideas gain traction in Washington, D.C., they are demanding new policies help people of all income levels.

“I think America forgets about its working class and it’s really unfortunate because we are the backbone of our country,” says Saray Alvarez, a new 10th-grade teacher in Los Angeles, who is expecting her first child this winter.

“I think some people have it easier because they don’t have to worry about maternity leave because they already have a full bank account versus some folks living paycheck to paycheck.”

Alvarez wants the same things many working mothers and fathers want in paid leave, including a reasonable time to bond with her new baby, perhaps three months, and a guarantee that her job will be there when she comes back to work.

In addition, in two-parent families both parents should qualify for parental leave, adds Veronica Serrano, a single mom from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

When Serrano gave birth to her daughter 17 years ago, she didn’t have any paid leave. Instead, she drained her savings to pay for a few months off from her job, where she earned $7.50 an hour.

Serrano still works for the same company, while also helping OLÉ, a grassroots organization for families in New Mexico, on the Healthy Workforce ABQ campaign for earned paid sick days.

“I was able to keep my job. That was the most important thing,” Serrano says.

For low-income working families, a plan also needs a healthy wage replacement – the percentage of pay a worker receives while on leave – otherwise lower-wage workers will be less likely to take a leave, according to Family Values @ Work, a group of 24 local and state coalitions working to advance paid leave and paid sick-day policies.

“You can’t live on half a minimum wage,” the organization’s co-executive director, Wendy Chun-Hoon, says.

But Chun-Hoon, Serrano and other working parents need more than paid leave for new babies. They need paid time off to care for ailing parents and sometimes themselves.

For the nation’s poor working parents, the absence of paid leave is only the visible top of an iceberg of workplace challenges – inflexible scheduling, lack of affordable child care and elder care, and access to reliable and safe public transportation – that disrupts their lives. What families need is broader family, not simply parental, leave, advocates say.

Why? As the baby-boomer generation ages, many parents must juggle the needs of their ailing parents, work, the needs of their children, and sometimes their own health problems.

“A lot of what the Trump administration is (focused on is) parental leave,” Ruth Martin, national director of Workplace Justice Campaigns at the grassroots parents’ organization MomsRising, says. “That is not the only thing we need, especially in the face of this silver tsunami.”

The good news is that there are a lot of ideas and models already out there because local governments have been enacting paid-leave policies, such as in San Francisco and for the state of California, for years.

“We have seen movement at every level of (local) government, roughly two dozen municipalities are passing mostly parental leave,” Martin says. “I do see recognized on both sides of the aisle that we need to ensure that low-wage workers are covered too.”

Now, this momentum in cities and states is spilling over onto the national stage. Last year, every major presidential candidate talked about paid parental leave and what to do about it, according to Family Values @ Work’s Chun-Hoon.

Yet, Chun-Hoon says the Trump administration’s plan and the ideas presented by AEI and Brookings do not fully meet the needs of working families, in part because they do not guarantee enough time off, provide sufficient pay during a leave for those earning the least, cover the main reasons families need time, or include enough families, including LGBTQ families.

“Congress is not doing anything about this…they are stuck, all the innovation is at the state level,” she says.

To get an effective plan moving, representatives and senators should talk with families about what they need, Chun-Hoon suggests.

“It is the only way it (gets) done, if low-wage workers who are impacted and families who are impacted are part the decision making,” she says.

If Veronica Serrano could talk with a senator working on a paid leave plan, she knows what she would share with the lawmaker: “Give me what your wife got. Give me what your kids got. That is all I would say.”


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