Not long ago I was on my way into a subway station in Washington DC, right at the bottom of Capitol Hill. As I rode down the escalator, I noticed a small group huddled around a trash can in the corner of the entry. Between them was one of those Styrofoam to-go boxes, balanced precariously on the rim of the can. A young boy was eating from the tray, his eyes barely level with box, standing in the shadow of his mother, who was feeding an even smaller child in her arms. It didn’t take long to figure out why this little family was eating out of a single box standing around a trashcan, when there was a food court and tables and chairs inside. This mother was feeding her children with what she’d dug out of the garbage.
As I watched, the little boy tried to reach farther than he could see, and knocked the box off the can. It fell upside down onto the concrete, splattering the food on the ground. The woman shouted at him in anger and frustration. He looked terror-stricken. The baby she held started to cry. In my house, this would be a mess to clean up. For these people, it was an unsuccessful attempt to avoid hunger.
This is a true story, but not a unique one. Women, especially those with children, are faced with serious obstacles when it comes to providing for their children and earning a living. There is widespread discrimination against mothers in the workplace in the US. Child care, especially good child care, is hard to find and expensive to pay for. Most workers don’t have paid sick days, and whether or not you can take maternity leave depends on whom you work for. When a mother is working, a sick kid, a pregnancy, and a child care lapse, can mean getting fired and losing your income.
Practically every other country protects mothers with paid sick leave and paid maternity leave. We could have that in the US too, but it won’t happen by waiting for lawmakers to step up on their own. It will only happen if voters make a big stink about it, and insist that their elected representatives enact legislation.
It took years of protests, demonstrations and campaigns to get women the right to vote. It took the same to establish the 40 hour work week, get children out of factories, and require employers to provide safe and healthy workplaces. It took more years of public action to pass the Civil Rights Act and ensure that race and ethnic origin could not be used as a bar to full participation in our society. It is going to require exactly the same determination and insistence to bring paid family leave and protections for pregnant workers to the USA.
The good news in all this is that the policies we need do exist, and that it is easier than ever to tell our legislators what we want them to do. Two critically important bills are currently in play in Congress right now. The Family Medical Leave Insurance Act (known as the FAMILY Act) was introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and US Representative Rosa DeLauro. It would offer most workers 2/3 of their income up to a specific limit for no more than 12 weeks a year to take care of a serious illness, or the birth or adoption of a child.
A worker could also take this time to care for a family member, like a child, spouse, or parent, with a serious medical condition. Benefits would be funded by both the worker and her employer, in the amount of about $1.50 each per week, based on a typical worker’s salary. It would be available to men and women, for themselves and to care for their children or other family members who need help.
The other crucial bill is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA). Say a pregnant woman is told by her doctor not to lift anything over 25 pounds during her pregnancy, or to alternate sitting and standing, or that it is essential that she stay hydrated throughout the day. Women have been fired for complying with these medical recommendations, or forced on to unpaid leave, or refused permission to do what their doctor has told them to do. With jobs hard to come by, having to choose between your health or your baby’s health, and your paycheck is potentially catastrophic.
The law is that an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation that could keep a worker on the job, and that goes for pregnant workers too. But many employers don’t realize it, or don’t think the law applies to pregnant workers, or don’t think pregnant women belong at work in the first place. The PWFA makes plain that when a reasonable accommodation, like a chair, extra bathroom breaks, or carrying a water bottle at work, can keep a pregnant worman in the job, the employer is required to provide it.
If these bills make sense to you, please call your Senators and US Representatives, and ask them to support the FAMILY Act and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. If you think it is good for families that expectant mothers can provide for themselves and their children, let your legislators know you want these bills enacted. If you think parents should be able to have a baby, care for a sick loved one, or have time to get well from a serious illness, without going broke or giving up their ability to get back on the job, take action.
If you think mothers should be able to feed their children without digging in a garbage can, find your elected representatives at https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members, and email or call them with this simple message: “I’m a constituent, and I want you to get the FAMILY Act and the PWFA passed.” As a private citizen, this is the most powerful thing you can do.