HOW MY STORY BEGAN
I am one of the millions of workers in the United States without paid family leave. Like so many others, I didn’t know this or the hard truth about access to paid leave in this country until my own family depended on it. But unlike many others, I’m also an elected official – and I want to change paid leave laws in this country.
My story starts about a year and a half ago when I became pregnant. I was 31 years old, working full time, and assumed I would be able to take paid time off – time I saw as critical to recovering from childbirth, ensuring my newborn’s good nutrition, keeping up with her pediatric visits, and forming the bonds proven to give her an early sense of security and self-esteem.
Instead, I discovered my employer had no paid family leave policy, and I had to access disability leave as a birth mother. Meanwhile, my husband’s employer also provided no paid family leave. He put together a week off using his vacation days.
Of course, our story is neither unique nor as dire as many others face – we were able to make things work, thanks to family. But it got me asking questions.
THE DEPTH OF THE PROBLEM
With the help of my union, CWA Local 4502, and policy experts at Innovation Ohio, we produced a report that explored the depth of the problem. We discovered that just 13 percent of workers in the United States have access to paid family leave, and among low-wage workers, it’s a paltry four percent. Only a few states have paid leave laws for private sector workers, and a fraction of states and cities have policies for public employees. There is no national paid family leave law. This means that when workers welcome a new child, have a seriously ill parent, or adopt a baby – which are just a few of the reasons people in this country need leave to meet family and medical needs – most are left having to choose between their families and their economic stability. Some even risk losing their jobs altogether.
Yet the benefits of paid family leave are irrefutable. Paid leave strengthens women and families by enabling women to preserve their incomes (especially important when we are paid, on average, only 79 cents for every dollar paid to men – and it’s markedly worse for women of color) and to manage the critical caregiving that data show we still disproportionately provide. Paid leave also reduces economic disparities. Think about it: when taking leave without pay is the only option, low-wage workers have the fewest options. And paid leave yields a stronger workforce, stronger businesses, and a stronger economy too because it improves employee retention and productivity.
COLUMBUS CITY COUNCIL
At eight months pregnant, I took a leap and ran for the Columbus City Council. I knew that if I won – and I did – I’d have the opportunity to tackle this issue head on.
Now, I’m working on a paid leave proposal for city employees. It’s a start. And as I push for advances in my city, state lawmakers and advocates are working on a bill that would apply to many more workers and enable Ohio to join those states paving the way toward a national paid leave law.
But why should access to paid leave depend on where you live or your employer?
The current state of things is totally out of step with the realities of the workforce, especially when existing policies have shown how well paid leave works, and nearly four in five voters say they want a national paid leave standard. Political candidates are talking about the issue, and thankfully some are even running on it. The national conversation has almost reached a fever pitch. It’s time for more.
Elizabeth Brown is a City Councilmember in Columbus, Ohio. She gave birth to her first child — a daughter — while running for public office. This post was adapted from her change.org petition.
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