Netsy Firestein is being honored as a Working Family Champion of Change
Almost thirty years ago when my older daughter was born, I got 3 months of fully paid maternity leave from the labor union where I worked. At the time, I had no idea how lucky I was. Later I learned the United States has NO national paid parental or family leave program. Today we are the only industrialized country in the world with no national policy even of paid maternity leave.
After thirty years, the reality has changed for millions as we won family leave insurance programs in three states (California, New Jersey and Rhode Island). I led the Coalition that helped to pass the California law in 2002 that provides up to 6 weeks of partial pay through a state insurance program—almost every employee in the state makes modest contributions to the program. An employee can receive wage replacement to bond with a new child or to care for a seriously ill relative—we recently expanded the law to have a more realistic definition of family, so that it covers parents, children, spouses, siblings, parents in law, grandparents and grandchildren.
However, this leaves out the other states. And paid family leave is only one piece of the puzzle for working families. We need to knit together our policies for caring for our families – our leave policies, our child care system and our workplace standards like paid sick days, minimum wage and work hours. Too often we address one issue at a time. But families are dealing with every issue, every day.
Today, families are left to fend for themselves and patch together time off from work and care for their children while they work. It is seen as a “private” issue, when in fact it is a public problem that we need to fix together.
We have a system of care that leaves many of the caregivers in poverty – those who care for our children as well as those who care for our elders. We leave our loved ones in the care of providers who, even with higher education levels, often make close to minimum wage. What does that say about how we value families?
The research is there – the importance of brain development in very young children; the need for parent/child bonding; the huge benefits of early childhood education; the needs of working parents to have affordable and accessible child care; the link between good wages for child care providers/teachers and high quality care; the impact on families of low wages and erratic work schedules.
Let’s be big and bold. Everyone says family comes first, right? So let’s put our money where our mouth is. Let’s have a national conversation about putting the pieces of the puzzle together for children and families: A national family leave insurance program; a higher minimum wage including full time hours for those who want it; paid sick days; and a well-funded, high quality child care and early education system at little or no cost to parents.
Netsy Firestein is a Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. Previously she worked with the California Work and Family Coalition to pass paid family leave and other family friendly laws in California.