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Originally posted on Everyday Feminism

Life is unpredictable. You never know what’s coming. But you can usually count getting some curveballs thrown your way.

Maybe your grandmother falls ill and you’re the only person in the family who’s in a position to take care of her. Maybe you are diagnosed with a serious illness and need to take time off work to get treatment. Or maybe you and your partner decide to adopt – but you both work full-time and can’t take unpaid leave.

At some point in our lives, most people will need to take off an extended period of time to deal with a family or medical issue.

Despite this, only 12% of workers in America receive paid family leave through their jobs. And the lucky ones that do are disproportionately well-educated, high-earning, and male.

But what about the rest of us? What if we fall ill, have a child, or need to take care of a loved one in need?

Unless we have another breadwinner who can support the family, our choices are generally few: a) keep working to the detriment of ourselves and/or others, or b) take unpaid leave (or quit our jobs) and face financial hardship.

Current U.S. Law Makes Taking Time Off Available Only to the Few

Presently, 1993’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) sets the precedent for workers’ leave policies. FMLA guarantees twelve weeks of unpaid leave to employees at companies employing more than fifty people. Unpaid leave, mind you, and nothing at all for employees of smaller businesses.

Unfortunately, a lot of us cannot afford to go for twelve weeks (or even three, for that matter!), without pay.

Low-income parents to a newborn are a classic example. In this situation, at least one parent is generally forced to leave work (and lose money) in order to care for their child.

But this phenomenon goes far beyond new parenthood – the same financial limitations are placed on caretakers tending to sick or injured family members. And women often feel the brunt of this state of affairs.

Paid Family Leave is More Important than Ever for Women

Research shows that four in ten households with children are headed by women who are the main or only breadwinner for their family – numbers that have risen considerably since 1960, when women made up just 11 percent of our nation’s familial wage earners.

But while the demographics of the American workforce have drastically changed, American paid leave policies have not.

And because women are statistically more likely to become caretakers – making up an estimated 59 to 75% of family or informal caregivers – they urgently need laws that guarantee paid family leave.

Paid Parental Leave in the U.S. and Abroad

In Sweden, new moms and dads are allotted 480 paid days of leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child (to be split between them and used at any time before their child hits eight years old).

In the United Kingdom, new parents are granted 280 days of parental leave at a 90% pay rate. And in Indonesia, parents get 84 days of fully-paid parental leave.

Compare these numbers to those of American leave policies, under which new moms receive a whopping zero days of paid time off per child. And don’t even think about mentioning time off for new dads over here.

There is no other industrialized nation in the world that does not guarantee working mothers paid time off after giving birth to or adopting a child.

In fact, America joins Papua New Guinea as the only other country on the globe that doesn’t mandate some amount of paid time off for new mothers.

But here in the land of Stars and Stripes, an astounding 33% of all new moms take no formal time off after giving birth – because they can’t afford to.

And mothers aren’t the only ones who will benefit from paid time off legislation. Working fathers are becoming increasingly vocal about needing time off to spend with their new children. In fact, 50% of working dads say that it is hard for them to balance their family responsibilities with their work life.

The Big Picture on Caretaking

Currently, less than 40% of American workers are eligible for an employer-provided temporary disability program.

Due to this, as well as the fact that so few American workers are eligible for employer-paid family leave, many people are forced to make an impossible choice: take unpaid leave to care for a sick loved one (or see to their own care) or continue to work to earn the money they need to keep their families afloat.

But advocacy groups like the National Partnership for Women and Families believe that they’ve found a better option for working families in the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act).

The FAMILY Act, Congressional legislation sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, would provide all eligible employees with as much as twelve weeks of paid family leave.

So just what does this paid time off entail? Let’s debunk some of the bogus ideas out there.

Paid Family Leave Is Not a Vacation

The FAMILY Act ensures that the paid leave it guarantees can only be used for its intended purposes, such as the individual’s need to deal with their own serious illness or health condition; the illness of a spouse, domestic partner, parent, or child; the birth or adoption of a child; or the injury of a military family member or other crisis stemming from their service.

The law is not written to allow families to take sabbatical or vacation. It is written to deal strictly with health-related issues.

Paid Family Leave Is Not Welfare

Critics of welfare don’t have agency to condemn paid time off legislation.

Paid leave is not an entitlement; in fact, it’s an earned benefit that works similarly to other benefit systems like Social Security.

Employees must have paid into the system and worked for an established period of time before they are able to collect benefits.

Paid Family Leave Is Cost-Effective for Workers

Paid family leave actually ends up saving workers money.

The FAMILY Act’s insurance program is paid for through payroll contributions from both employers and their workers, with an extremely low premium of two cents for every $10 in income. For most workers, this equals less than two dollars per week.

So what do the numbers boil down to? The gratifying truth that your paycheck won’t take a hit if this legislation is passed.

And luckily, the paid family leave model works in practice, not only in theory. When a similar program was put in place in California, two-thirds of employees that benefitted didn’t even see a change in their wages.

On the other hand, when workers who don’t have access to paid leave are forced to take time off because of family issues or illness, they are much more likely to fall into poverty and turn to public assistance.

How Businesses Deal with Paid Time Off Policies

On the business end, some companies have seen the value of retaining their staff that needs time off by offering comprehensive family leave time.

Google, for example, cut their new-mother attrition by half when they implemented a five-month maternity leave policy. But not every employer is as generous as Google – which is why we need a national policy that makes sure all businesses treat their workers right.

Although feared and criticized by some members of the business community, many business owners nationwide – ranging from the founder of Kinko’s to the CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council – openly support the FAMILY Act. And in a real life example, California’s paid family leave law has actually had a positive effect on business in the state.

Equally impressive, more small business owners stand in favor of a national paid family leave program than against it.

Society Benefits from Paid Family Leave

Access to paid family leave benefits many different groups in society, sometimes in unexpected ways:

  • Children and infants whose parents have access to paid family leave are much more likely do have better health outcomes and do better in school.
  • Their parents are less likely to need the help of government safety net programs and less like to declare bankruptcy.
  • Women are more likely to continue work after being caretakers, and less likely to need welfare.
  • New mothers who are able to take time off after giving birth or adopting a child are much less likely to suffer from depression.
  • Infants whose parents were able to stay home with them during their first year are more likely to do well in school and the job market.

How many of those situations might apply to your life?

The FAMILY Act and You: How to Get Involved

There are a lot of ways that the FAMILY Act might be able to help you or someone you know, as illustrated in the examples throughout this article. If you want to get involved in helping paid family leave become a nationwide reality, don’t hesitate to jump in.

People are organizing nationwide behind the FAMILY Act. To send a message to your representative asking him or her to support the Act, use this handy tool from the Association of American University Women.

However, given the current gridlock in Congress over this issue, working to change state policy may be one of your best options. Check out local coalitions in your state that are working on family leave issues or Paid Sick Days campaigns.

Alternately, visit websites of organizations like the Labor Project for Working Families, Family Values @ Work, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, or the National Partnership for Women and Families for more ways to take action.

***

Simply put, paid family leave leads to a more successful America – an America with smarter children, happier parents, less poverty, and a stronger workforce. An America that supports its working women.

There are many women and men already dedicating their lives to this fight – and it makes total sense, because baby, we deserve it!

 

minimum_wage_1018
Cross-posted from my article in Everyday Feminism

Most of us have had a shitty job or two.

Maybe it was a job that barely paid, where the managers acted like tyrants, and the hours were inconvenient and unforgiving. Maybe in high school, we had to work at the local Gap to save up for gas money or after college, we waited tables to pay off student debt.

But how many of us have actually had to support ourselves fully – let alone support a family – on a job like this?

There are a lot of people out there who have to do just that.

They earn the minimum wage at a thankless job that is their only form of income.

And that income is extremely low.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour. That means $15,080 per year for a full-time worker.

Minimum wage varies depending on the state you live in, but most states have chosen to remain at the bottom of the wage scale.

Simply put, the minimum wage is too low and has been that way for far too long.

Why Is the Minimum Wage So Low?

In 2007, the federal minimum wage was raised for the first time after a full decade of stagnancy.

This increase was modest at best, and was completely incapable of measuring up to the intense increases in energy and food prices over that same ten years.

And since then?

The wage has remained fixed at this low rate.

Many workers employed at restaurants, nail salons, car washes, and other service jobs are even worse off.

Employers are allowed to legally pay these workers only the tipped minimum wage – a ridiculous sum of $2.13/hour. This wage has not been raised in twenty-two years.

Granted, the Fair Standards Labor Act (FSLA) mandates that if a worker’s total wages (tips plus the hourly $2.13) do not add up to the federal minimum, the employer must make up the difference.

But this is small consolation when all of the worker’s tip money has been used to close that gap.

Who Is a Typical Minimum Wage Worker?

The typical minimum wage worker is not who you’d think.

They are not, in fact, the stoner high school student looking to make extra cash or the aspiring post-grad working on their acting career.

They are the average low-income working adult, struggling to get by and provide for a family on a wage that is simply not high enough to pay for the expenses of modern day life.

In fact, 88% of minimum wage workers are over the age of 20, and astoundingly, more than one third are older than 40.

Sadder yet, these workers’ minimum wage salaries account for half of their total family income, on average. These are not side jobs used to earn vacation money. They are jobs that adult workers are trying to build their lives around.

Check out this infographic from the Economic Policy Institute for a visual portrayal of myths versus reality about minimum wage workers:

minwageEPI

How Challenging Is it to “Make It” on the Minimum Wage?

Let’s take that average full-time minimum wage worker income of $15k/year and $7.25/hour and dissect it a little bit.

Living in the most expensive US state, Hawaii, you would have to work 175 hours per week to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment on the minimum wage.

However, this a legitimate impossibility, as one week contains a total of only 168 hours.

Even in the much cheaper housing markets like Illinois – where the minimum wage is higher, at $8.25/hour, and the rents are lower – you’d have to work for a whopping 82 hours per week to be able to rent a two-bedroom.

So if you can’t house yourself, can you at least afford food?

According to the USDA, the cost of a healthy diet for a family of four ranges from $146-$289 per week. But even that lowest sum means buying the cheapest fruits and vegetables and doing considerable weekly planning as well as at-home preparation.

Many low-income working families do not have the luxury of free time to do these things.

And if both parents are working, who will take care of children? Daycare probably isn’t an option if you are living on a minimum wage salary.

Forget trying to raise a family, sending your kids to get an education with clothes that fit and supplies to do their homework. Forget living in a safe neighborhood with good schools. Forget fresh, healthy food.

Not to mention, minimum wage jobs almost never provide the necessary living wage benefits such as paid sick days, health care benefits, and retirement packages.

Make Minimum Wage? You Probably Need Welfare

For a minimum wage worker, it’s almost impossible to make it without relying on the assistance of federal programs.

When people use the age-old adage about how “lazy welfare recipients need to get a job,” they seem to forget the fact that many people who receive some form of government assistance are employed – but that the wages that they make are simply not sufficient to get by.

They are not “living wages.”

Huge corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s pay such low wages that their full-time workers live in poverty and are eligible to receive food assistance through SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps.

What criticizers of welfare don’t (or pretend not to) realize is that the most effective way to reduce government spending on food stamps would be – you guessed it! – to raise the minimum wage.

If we want low-income people to work and be able to provide for themselves and their families without government assistance, we absolutely have to pay them a living wage.

Has the Minimum Wage Increased Appropriately Along with Inflation?

This is a simple answer: No.

In the year 1968, the minimum wage of $1.60/hour was substantial enough to lift a family of three out of poverty – even a family with only one income.

If the minimum wage had risen according to inflation over the years, it would be over $10 today.

And yet it remains stuck at a pitiful $7.25.

While the price of basic necessities like food and fuel has skyrocketed in recent years, minimum wage workers are trapped earning a wage that would have only been suitable decades ago.

Legislation on the Federal Minimum Wage

The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 would raise the nationwide mandated wage to $10.10/hour by the year 2015, by way of three separate 95 cent increases. It would also increase the tipped minimum wage to 70% of the full rate.

Starting in 2016, the wage would also be “indexed” for inflation – meaning that it would rise according to how much the cost of living increases in the years to come.

The act would give 30 million workers a much-needed raise. Fifty-six percent of these are low-income women and almost half are workers of color. It would also mean a substantial income increase for the parents of over 17 million children.

Additionally, increasing the tipped federal minimum wage would mean a substantial step forward in women’s pay equity, as 71% of tipped wage workers are female. This makes raising the minimum wage a feminist issue as well as a labor and poverty issue.

In short, passing the Fair Minimum Wage Act would create a substantially better chance for working families to actually support themselves on a minimum wage salary.

How to Help Raise the Minimum Wage

If you think this is a good idea, you aren’t alone.

Recent polls show that two thirds of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10 and indexing it so that it increases with the cost of living.

Call your elected officials in Congress and ask them to support the Fair Minimum Wage Act.

Join the email listservs and campaigns of pro-worker groups like the National Employment Law Project , NELP’s Raise the Minimum Wage campaign, the Economic Policy Institute or the National Women’s Law Center, who focus attention on raising the federal minimum wage and addressing pay inequity.

And get active on Twitter using the hashtag #RaisetheWage to spread awareness.

How Much Political Support for Exists for the Minimum Wage?

Slowly but surely, things are beginning to change – whether it be extending the minimum wage to those who do not currently have it or enacting higher state wages across the country – but there are still many who oppose a minimum wage raise with hellfire, claiming that there are “better ways to help the poor” because of the assertion that a raise will hurt small businesses, lead to further unemployment and cause economic downturn.

Economic studies show that these assumptions are wrong.

By a 4-to-1 marginlead economists agree that raising the minimum wage does not reduce employment and that the economic benefit of doing so outweighs the cost.

Furthermore, more than two-thirds of small business owners support an increase of the minimum wage as well as indexing it for inflation.

In recent months, some strides forward have been made.

On September 17 of this year, the US Department of Labor announced the extension of overtime protections and minimum wage laws to home care workers.

After almost four decades of injustice, this monumental step will extend this crucial law to the two million American workers who care for the elderly and disabled in their homes. This measure is timely and much-needed, as home care assistance is one of the fastest-growing industries in our nation.

In another recent leap forward, the state of California is on track to pass the highest state minimum wage yet – $10/hour by the year 2016 (at present, the highest state wage can be found in Washington state at $9.19/hour). If enacted, this important increase is likely to lead the way for many other states to raise their minimum wages as well.

Raising the minimum wage will help boost the economy.

It will help families in need making a living wage and protect their children.

It will help people earn enough to not need government assistance to get by.

And it will help women and people of color.

To me, it’s a no-brainer.

Let’s #RaisetheWage – and let’s do it now. It’s been a long time coming.