Good news for people in the U.S. who value things like family and caring about them! A federal proposal, called the FAMILY Act for paid family medical leave (that mundane policy that is standard in Europe) has just been introduced by Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Rose DeLaura (D-CT). I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about legistlation! (It was when the Fair Labor Standard Act was extended to home healthcare aides.)
The U.S. passed the Family Medical Leave Act in 1993, securing people’s jobs when they had to take a leave to care for a family member (commonly an elderly parent or a child). But sadly it is woefully inadequate. It only applies to larger employers and doesn’t secure any partial pay during leaves. Some employers do offer paid leave, like maternity leave, to their employees, but it is not required. Only 12 percent of workers in the U.S. have access to paid time off at work for family leaves, and they are mostly already well-paid and male. The Center for American Progress describes the legislation in detail, noting that it is an earned benefit rather than an entitlement and that is will help women return to the labor force and families rely less on public assistance. Another selling point is that small businesses, who were not accountable under the FMLA, support the extension of family leave to their workers and support workers getting paid for family leave.
This new legislation is so very necessary because it is basically just making what families already do for each other sustainable for themselves, and improves condition in the economy as a whole on top of that. The fact is that we already expect people to care for their families. And by that, I mean we expect women to care for their families. This expectation for women constrains their labor market mobility because they may choose jobs where it is easier to take leaves of absence, like those where skills are constant and not developed through continued tenure so absences affect productivity less, or close to home so they can combine market work and family work at home. Or women may have to choose to not work at all, which has implications for their bargaining power in the home.
Care work has an unusual position in our society. We hold family and the work women do to maintain their families on a pedestal, saying it is valuable to society. We socialize women to feel obligated to do this work. But until now we haven’t been willing to actually attach monetary value to it. One of the reasons it is so difficult to attach value to caring is because it is difficult to monitor and its output is difficult to measure. But at the same time, we expect women to take a financial opportunity cost in taking time off of work to care for their families, so if we think of its value as the opportunity cost, it is quite easy to figure out how much it’s worth. It’s worth how much you were paid before you took a leave. So the FAMILY Act takes this calculation and legislates that, if you work for a certain period of time for an employer, you will receive a portion of that income when you take leave to care for a family member. The legislation is simple and makes sense, so I’m eager to hear how it will be torn down by Congress as they try to justify why we shouldn’t value this work.