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on the radar: 07.18.07

Paid Family Leave - It's About Time

With all the partisan bickering in Washington in the past couple of weeks over the war, Scooter Libby’s non-punishment, and whether Harriet Meirs is entitled to claim executive privilege in the Justice Department scandal, the media has ignored one bit of  bi-partisan cooperation that could mean a lot to working people, especially women.

Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Ted Stevens (R-AK) have introduced a bill to provide paid family leave for birth or adoption of a newborn, care of an elderly parent, or serious illness of the employee.  It’s about time.  The U.S. lags far behind most industrialized countries in granting this benefit to its workforce.  According to researchers at Harvard and McGill Universities, 163 other countries guarantee paid maternal leave and 45 countries provide paid paternal leave.  Additionally, 37 countries already ensure paid leave for the care of an ill child.  By contrast, our present system grants only unpaid leave, and only to employees of large companies. Most can’t afford to take it. This legislation would help close that gap, and begin to bring the United States up to par with other industrialized nations.

Of course some will say that taxes in those countries are much higher than in the U.S., and what’s more, it smacks of socialism and government as big brother.  True, our taxes are lower. But if you factor in the cost to families when a wage earner has to quit a job for reasons covered by the new bill, and the cost to companies of turnover and replacement when these employees leave, our present setup isn’t such a bargain after all.  As for big brother, those same arguments were made when the United States first required public schools.  Up until then, only the rich and well-connected could educate their kids.  Hm-m-m, sort of like the present system on family leave – the rich can afford it on their own, and tough luck for ordinary workers.

The new Family Leave Insurance Act (FLIA)  would create a giant insurance pool funded by employees and their companies.  It would provide 8 weeks of paid leave in a twelve month period on a sliding scale.  Folks at the bottom, making $20,000 a year or less, would get 100% wage replacement.  Others would get replacements  ranging from 75% down to 40% for higher wage workers ($60-$97,000 per year).

The best part is that it won’t cost anybody that much.  Big corporations would pay an average of $6.12 per month per worker, matched by the employee.  If the Halliburtons of the world can’t shell out $73.50 per year to grant some relief to their overstretched workers, maybe we ought to rethink the $21 billion in contracts they get from big brother government.  Small companies wouldn’t be required to participate, but if they opted in, they and their workers would pay half the tab of the big guys -- only $3.06 per employee. 

With an election year coming up and both Democrats and Republicans grandstanding on how much they care about families, you’d think support in the Senate would be darn near universal.  No dice. So far, Dodd and Stevens have garnered exactly two other co-sponsors, Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), and Ted Kennedy (D-MA).  The signatures of Senators on both sides of the aisle who could sign on to the new Family Leave bill are conspicuously absent.

Working women, by far the majority of voters in both parties, deserve better.

Martha Burk is the Money editor for Ms., and Director of the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women's Organizations.

Courtesy Minuteman Media.