As someone who has worked for decades to advance family-friendly policies, it was truly amazing to see more than 1,500 lawmakers, businesses, workers, advocates, and top administration officials come together with President Barack Obama
for the recent White House Summit on Working Families.
The event brought unprecedented attention to the unmet needs of workers and their families and the role that stronger workplace policies will play in strengthening the nation’s economy. But the national conversation and calls to action it generated must only be the beginning.
How much progress this watershed moment brings for America’s working families depends on what happens next. The weeks, months, and years ahead will be critical for the movement.
Recently, we celebrated two milestone anniversaries that represent the kind of progress and policies the U.S. urgently needs. The tremendously successful and groundbreaking state-paid family-leave programs in California and New Jersey are now 10 and five years old, respectively.
These programs provide tangible help to working families when they needed it most by allowing them to take paid time away from their jobs to care for seriously ill family members and new children. They have also generated a powerful body of evidence showing the positive effects of paid leave for workers, families, businesses, and economies.
Studies of California’s and New Jersey’s programs that access to paid family leave indicate:
- New parents are more likely to remain in the workforce, contributing to the tax base and protecting their financial security.
- Businesses are more stable due to reduced turnover and improved worker loyalty.
- Economies benefit from reduced reliance on public assistance and families’ ability to continue spending in their communities.
California and New Jersey demonstrate that progress toward family-friendly workplaces is possible and hugely beneficial. Their paid family-leave programs were the first of their kind in the nation. So far, only Rhode Island has implemented a similar program.
Other states simply are not moving fast enough. As the National Partnership found in the third edition of our report, Expecting Better: A State-by-State Analysis of Laws That Help New Parents, no state is doing all it could to support new parents. Meanwhile, 17 states are doing nothing at all.
We have to change that. This week, next week, and every week afterward, we need to find ways to make progress so that very soon, every worker, family, business, and economy has the support it needs and deserves. That starts with more state and local progress, but also concrete action at the federal level to address the challenges working families and our country face.
The president has shown real leadership on this front. He called for family-friendly workplace policies in his 2014 State of the Union address, and for the fifth year in a row his budget includes a fund to help states create paid-leave programs similar to those in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. He also recently issued a presidential memorandum that includes new paid-leave research initiatives, and competitive grants for states that want to study paid leave.
But major progress to support working families at the federal level will only come when Congress acts too. The National Partnership convenes a coalition of more than 400 organizations working to advance the federal Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY Act—a common sense proposal for a national paid family and medical leave program modeled on the programs in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, and longstanding temporary disability insurance programs in five states.
We are also pushing for the Healthy Families Act, which would establish a much-needed national paid sick days standard. These proposals would make the country’s workplaces more family friendly, and they deserve congressional support.
Recent polling shows that the public agrees. Around 86% of voters say it is important to them that the president and Congress consider new laws to help keep working families economically secure, like paid family and medical leave and paid sick days. A majority of voters say they are more likely to vote for someone who supports a national paid-leave law. There is simply no excuse for continued inaction on the part of lawmakers.
Only by making progress at the national level will we be able to realize the potential of the summit, take advantage of this unique moment in time, and make the progress the country needs and deserves. Now is the time for real action to bring the country’s employment safeguards in line with the needs of its workforce.
—Debra L. Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization.