Commentary Law and Policy

Family and Medical Leave Act a Step Toward Reproductive Justice, But Still Leaves Many Behind

Elizabeth Chen

The 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act offers a chance to reflect on its potential, and those that are still left without protection.

This article was cross-posted with permission from the Center for American Progress.

The Family and Medical Leave Act was signed into law 20 years ago today and was a great first step toward supporting workers and workplace fairness. The law ensures that employees can receive 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave to recover from a serious medical condition, provide care for a seriously ill family member, or care for a new child. Workplace leave, however, is not just an employment issue—it is also a matter of reproductive justice.

Reproductive justice stands at the intersection of traditional reproductive rights concerns, such as the decision whether to become a parent, and social justice issues. In addition, it centers on the reproductive health needs of the most marginalized populations, including women of color, low-income individuals, and individuals with disabilities, among others. In our 2006 report, “More than a Choice: A Progressive Vision for Reproductive Health and Rights,” we set forth four cornerstones essential to a progressive reproductive health, rights, and justice agenda, including policies that support the ability to become a parent and to parent with dignity—meaning being able to financially, emotionally, and physically support a child’s basic needs—and the ability to have healthy and safe families and relationships.

Workplace leave is crucial for all people, but especially for low-income individuals seeking to become parents and have healthy families—a right to which we are all entitled. Historically, though, some parenting has been privileged at the expense of others, and not everyone has been able to exercise this right.

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Laws and social movements, for example, encouraged white women to stay out of the workforce in order to provide full-time care for their children, while driving women of color—especially black women—into paid work, thus preventing them from being full-time stay-at-home caregivers to their children. Harvard Law Dean Martha Minow has documented how welfare policy for mothers in the late 19th century provided income support for them to stay at home. When access to such income support became increasingly available to black women during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, however, the rhetoric surrounding welfare became more negative. University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Dorothy Roberts explains that, “The central message of welfare reform is that recipient mothers are deviant for staying home and would better serve their children by finding jobs.”

To this day, programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides income support for families living in poverty, require work in the formal economy—or training for it—driving low-income parents into the workforce. Unpaid work within the home, including caring for families, does not satisfy the program’s requirements. This is not merely a historical remnant of former cultural biases—as recently as the 2012 presidential election, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) claimed that he would require mothers receiving income support to either work outside the home or lose the support.

Furthermore, parenting itself is highly gendered in law and society, making it difficult for men to assume caregiving roles. Sex-role stereotypes, often historically codified in law, cast white women as caregivers and white men as breadwinners. Masculinity throughout the 20th century was defined by this stereotypical family wage system, even though working-class men and men of color were largely excluded from that system.
The gendered breadwinner-caregiver model has become increasingly destabilized over time. In fact, as we noted in our issue brief, “The New Breadwinners: 2010 Update,” in 2010 women were either primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families with children. Yet gendered caregiver bias persists and can result in employment discrimination against men when they request leave to care for their children.

Given the devaluation of caregiving, while also recognizing that most parents—especially low-income ones—must work, how can we support working parents as both workers and caregivers? The Family and Medical Leave Act was a step in the right direction: By protecting the jobs of workers caring for a new child, the law reflects policymakers’ recognition that caretaking after birth or adoption of a child is essential, and that workers should have the flexibility to take time off to do so.

The law also furthers equality and disrupts sex-role stereotypes by applying equally to both men and women. Under the law, men and women alike have the opportunity to take time off to care for family members—and the percentage of men taking leave for caregiving purposes has increased steadily over time. Even former Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, initially an opponent of women’s equality under the law, acknowledged the crucial work that the law does to “attack the formerly state-sanctioned stereotype that only women are responsible for family caregiving.”

Workplace policies such as the Family and Medical Leave Act give workers the opportunity to care for their families with dignity by permitting them to continue to work and also to spend crucial time bonding with their new children. Under the law, workers can also take time off to care for a seriously ill family member, including a child, expanding the ability for parents to meet the needs of their children.  

Unfortunately, the Family and Medical Leave Act doesn’t go far enough. As we noted in our 2009 issue brief, “Labor Pains: Improving Employment and Income Security for Pregnant Women and New Mothers,” the law only covers a subset of workers. According to new statistics released by the Department of Labor, more than 60 percent of workers do not qualify for the protections of the law because they or their employers do not meet one or more requirements for leave. Moreover, because the leave is unpaid, almost 50 percent of workers report not being financially able to take the leave. Guaranteed leave does not enhance the ability for individuals to parent with dignity if they do not qualify for it or cannot afford to take it.

Workplace leave is crucial for people with children to be able to parent with dignity and have healthy families. The ability to care for children when they are born or adopted, or when they fall ill is essential to a holistic and comprehensive vision of reproductive health, rights, and justice. The Family and Medical Leave Act was a good beginning, but we must continue to fight until all Americans have the ability to care for their children without jeopardizing their job or their income.

Commentary Politics

Is Clinton a Progressive? Not If She Chooses Tim Kaine

Jodi Jacobson

The selection of Tim Kaine as vice president would be the first signal that Hillary Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, former secretary of state and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton has frequently claimed to be a progressive, though she often adds the unnecessary and bewildering caveat that she’s a “progressive who likes to get things done.” I’ve never been sure what that is supposed to mean, except as a possible prelude to or excuse for giving up progressive values to seal some unknown deal in the future; as a way of excusing herself from fighting for major changes after she is elected; or as a way of saying progressives are only important to her campaign until after they leave the voting booth.

One of the first signals of whether Clinton actually believes in a progressive agenda will be her choice of running mate. Reports are that Sen. Tim Kaine, former Virginia governor, is the top choice. The selection of Kaine would be the first signal that Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

We’ve seen this happen before. In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama claimed to be a progressive. By virtue of having a vision for and promise of real change in government and society, and by espousing transparency and responsibility, he won by a landslide. In fact, Obama even called on his supporters, including the millions activated by the campaign’s Organizing for Action (OFA), to keep him accountable throughout his term. Immediately after the election, however, “progressives” were out and the right wing of the Democratic party was “in.”

Obama’s cabinet members in both foreign policy and the economy, for example, were drawn from the center and center-right of the party, leaving many progressives, as Mother Jones’ David Corn wrote in the Washington Post in 2009, “disappointed, irritated or fit to be tied.” Obama chose Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, a man with a reputation from the days of Bill Clinton’s White House for a reluctance to move bold policies—lest they upset Wall Street or conservative Democrats—and a deep disdain for progressives. With Emanuel as gatekeeper of policies and Valerie Jarrett consumed with the “Obama Brand” (whatever that is), the White House suddenly saw “progressives” as the problem.

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It became clear that instead of “the change we were hoping for,” Obama had started on an impossible quest to “cooperate” and “compromise” on bad policies with the very party that set out to destroy him before he was even sworn in. Obama and Emanuel preempted efforts to push for a public option for health-care reform, despite very high public support at the time. Likewise, the White House failed to push for other progressive policies that would have been a slam dunk, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, a major goal of the labor movement that would have made it easier to enroll workers in unions. With a 60-vote Democratic Senate majority, this progressive legislation could easily have passed. Instead, the White House worked to support conservative Democrat then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s efforts to kill it, and even sent Vice President Joe Biden to Arkansas to campaign for her in her run for re-election. She lost anyway.

They also allowed conservatives to shelve plans for an aggressive stimulus package in favor of a much weaker one, for the sole sake of “bipartisanship,” a move that many economists have since criticized for not doing enough.  As I wrote years ago, these decisions were not only deeply disappointing on a fundamental level to those of us who’d put heart and soul into the Obama campaign, but also, I personally believe, one of the main reasons Obama later lost the midterms and had a hard time governing.  He was not elected to implement GOP lite, and there was no “there, there” for the change that was promised. Many people deeply devoted to making this country better for working people became fed up.

Standing up for progressive principles is not so hard, if you actually believe in them. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D- MA) is a progressive who actually puts her principles into action, like the creation against all odds in 2011 of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, perhaps the single most important progressive achievement of the past 20 years. Among other things, the CFPB  shields consumers from the excesses of mortgage lenders, student loan servicers, and credit card companies that have caused so much economic chaos in the past decade. So unless you are more interested in protecting the status quo than addressing the root causes of the many problems we now face, a progressive politician would want a strong progressive running mate.

By choosing Tim Kaine as her vice president, Clinton will signal that she values progressives in name and vote only.

As Zach Carter wrote in the Huffington Post, Kaine is “setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.” Kaine is in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement largely negotiated in secret and by corporate lobbyists. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose voters Clinton needs to win over, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren oppose the TPP because, in Warren’s words, it “would tilt the playing field even more in favor of … big multinational corporations and against working families.”

The progressive agenda includes strong emphasis on effective systems of governance and oversight of banks and financial institutions—the actors responsible, as a result of deregulation, for the major financial crises of the past 16 years, costing the United States trillions of dollars and gutting the financial security of many middle-class and low-income people.

As Warren has stated:

Washington turned a blind eye as risks were packaged and re-packaged, magnified, and then sold to unsuspecting pension funds, municipal governments, and many others who believed the markets were honest. Not long after the cops were blindfolded and the big banks were turned loose, the worst crash since the 1930s hit the American economy—a crash that the Dallas Fed estimates has cost a collective $14 trillion. The moral of this story is simple: Without basic government regulation, financial markets don’t work. That’s worth repeating: Without some basic rules and accountability, financial markets don’t work. People get ripped off, risk-taking explodes, and the markets blow up. That’s just an empirical fact—clearly observable in 1929 and again in 2008. The point is worth repeating because, for too long, the opponents of financial reform have cast this debate as an argument between the pro-regulation camp and the pro-market camp, generally putting Democrats in the first camp and Republicans in the second. But that so-called choice gets it wrong. Rules are not the enemy of markets. Rules are a necessary ingredient for healthy markets, for markets that create competition and innovation. And rolling back the rules or firing the cops can be profoundly anti-market.

If Hillary Clinton were actually a progressive, this would be key to her agenda. If so, Tim Kaine would be a curious choice as VP, and a middle finger of sorts to those who support financial regulations. In the past several weeks, Kaine has been publicly advocating for greater deregulation of banks. As Carter reported yesterday, “Kaine signed two letters on Monday urging federal regulators to go easy on banks―one to help big banks dodge risk management rules, and another to help small banks avoid consumer protection standards.”

Kaine is also trying to portray himself as “anti-choice lite.” For example, he recently signed onto the Women’s Health Protection Act. But as we’ve reported, as governor of Virginia, Kaine supported restrictions on abortion, such as Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law, which, he claimed in 2008, gave “women information about a whole series of things, the health consequences, et cetera, and information about adoption.” In truth, the information such laws mandate giving out is often “irrelevant or misleading,” according to the the Guttmacher Institute. In other words, like many others who let ideology rather than public health guide their policy decisions, Kaine put in place policies that are not supported by the evidence and that make it more difficult for women to gain access to abortion, steps he has not denounced. This is unacceptable. The very last thing we need is another person in the White House who further stigmatizes abortion, though it must be said Clinton herself seems chronically unable to speak about abortion without euphemism.

While there are many other reasons a Kaine pick would signal a less-than-secure and values-driven Clinton presidency, the fact also stands that he is a white male insider at a time when the rising electorate is decidedly not white and quite clearly looking for strong leadership and meaningful change. Kaine is not the change we seek.

The conventional wisdom these days is that platforms are merely for show and vice presidential picks don’t much matter. I call foul; that’s an absolutely cynical lens through which to view policies. What you say and with whom you affiliate yourself do indeed matter. And if Clinton chooses Kaine, we know from the outset that progressives have a fight on their hands, not only to avoid the election of an unapologetic fascist, but to ensure that the only person claiming the progressive mantle actually means what she says.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Clinton’s ‘Military Families Agenda’ Includes Calls for Family Leave, Child Care

Ally Boguhn

As part of her plan, Clinton would move to “ensure that family leave policies meet the needs of our military families so that, for example, new parents, as practical and consistent with mission, can care for their families at a pivotal moment.”

This week on the campaign trail, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton released her agenda for helping military families, and anti-choice voters remain ambiguous about Donald Trump’s positions on abortion.

Clinton Releases Plan to Expand Family Leave and Access to Child Care for Military Families

Clinton released her “Military Families Agenda” on Tuesday, detailing the former secretary of state’s plan, if elected, to support military personnel and their families.

“Military families, who serve alongside our service members, are vital to the strength of our military and the health of our nation,” reads Clinton’s plan. “Ensuring our military families have the support they need to balance service to the nation with the demands of family life helps our nation attract and retain the most talented service members.”

As part of her plan, Clinton would move to “ensure that family leave policies meet the needs of our military families so that, for example, new parents, as practical and consistent with mission, can care for their families at a pivotal moment.”

Clinton also vowed to improve access to child care for both active duty and reserve service members “both on- and off-base, including options for drop-in services, part-time child care, and the provision of extended-hours care, especially at Child Development Centers, while streamlining the process for re-registering children following a permanent change of station (PCS).” ​She did not say exactly what these improvements would entail.

“Service members should be able to focus on critical jobs without worrying about the availability and cost of childcare,” continues Clinton’s proposal.

Paid family leave has been a critical issue for Democrats on the campaign trail, and both Clinton and rival Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) rolled out clarifications and additional details about their proposals on the issue in January. Though the two candidates support similar federal policies, they would pay for them in different ways, with Clinton proposing raising taxes on the wealthy and Sanders pushing a payroll tax on workers and their employers.

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Clinton released a plan in early May to address the rising cost of child care in the United States, proposing that the federal government cap child-care costs at 10 percent of a family’s income, though the candidate’s campaign has yet to release details on how it would be implemented and funded.

Analysis conducted by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in 2015 found that increasingly, “child care is out of reach for working families,” and in in 33 states and Washington, D.C., child-care costs were higher than the average cost of in-state tuition at public universities.

Anti-Choice Voters Unsure About Trump’s Stance on Abortion

Recent polling found that the majority of voters who describe themselves as “pro-life” aren’t sure about whether they agree with presumptive Republican nominee Trump’s position on abortion.

The poll, conducted by Gallup during the first week of May, found that 63 percent of anti-choice respondents were unable to say whether they agreed or disagreed with Trump’s stance on abortion. Almost equal shares of anti-choice respondents said they agreed or disagreed with the Republican candidate: 19 percent agreed while 18 percent disagreed.

The majority of overall respondents—56 percent—had “no opinion” on whether they agreed with Trump on abortion or not. Just 13 percent of those polled agreed.

Meanwhile, 38 percent of those polled who considered themselves “pro-choice” said they agreed with Clinton’s position on abortion while 47 percent had “no opinion.” Twenty-two percent of all people surveyed said they agreed with Clinton, while 32 percent disagreed and 46 percent had no opinion.

Gallup’s findings follow months of ambiguity from both Republicans and the anti-choice community about Trump’s position on reproductive rights. Though Trump has consistently pushed his opposition to abortion on the campaign trail, his past statements on “punishing” abortion patients should abortion become illegal, and willingness to change the GOP platform on abortion to include exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment have landed him in hot water with some conservatives.

Anti-choice activists, however, are slowly starting to warm to the presumptive Republican nominee. Troy Newman, president of the radical group Operation Rescue, signaled he may be willing to back Trump in a blog post in May instructing the candidate to “earn” the anti-choice vote. Priests for Life and the Susan B. Anthony List officials both backed Trump in statements to the Washington Times, though they had previously spoken out against the Republican.

What Else We’re Reading

Eric Alterman explains in a piece for the Nation that the media’s willingness to provide a false equivalency to both sides of every issue “makes no sense when one side has little regard for the truth.”

“I don’t want to sound too much like a chauvinist, but when I come home and dinner’s not ready, I go through the roof,” said Trump in a 1994 interview with ABC News when discussing his romantic relationships. “I think that putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing …. If you’re in business for yourself, I really think it’s a bad idea.”

Sanders spotlighted Native American communities while campaigning in California ahead of the state’s primary. “This campaign is listening to a people whose pain is rarely heard—that is the Native American people,” said Sanders at a Sunday campaign rally. “All of you know the Native American people were lied to. They were cheated. Treaties they negotiated were broken from before this country even became a country. And we owe the Native American people a debt of gratitude we can never fully repay.”

Fusion’s Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy questions why Trump has said so little about the the Zika virus.

CNN embedded in a chyron a fact-check on Trump’s false claims about nuclear weapons.

Ohio removed thousands of voters from the state’s voter registration rolls because those voters had not cast ballots since 2008, in a move that could reportedly help Republicans in the state. Though states do occasionally cleanse their rolls, “only a handful [of states] remove voters simply because they don’t vote on a regular basis,” reports Reuters.