Twenty-one years ago I was only 11. While I was too young to be involved in the fight for family and medical leave (FMLA), I still wholeheartedly appreciate everyone who worked so hard to win this important law.
Over the past several years I’ve had many experiences with our current FMLA law. I know first-hand how important it is to have this law in place and the peace-of-mind it provides to employees who are eligible to take it. But the reality is that it's unpaid leave and that, in essence, is a challenge for most workers.
My sister, who has several chronic illnesses, had to take unpaid leave to take care of herself several years ago. In doing so, however, she was faced with some difficulty paying her monthly bills. When you’re chronically ill and trying to get better, the last thing you want to think about is how you’re going to make the rent.
Then I got pregnant, and while that was such a happy time in our lives, we were faced with some decisions about what to do after the baby was born. I was eligible for FMLA but could not take any unpaid time off so I stockpiled my sick and vacation time and came back to work after I used it up. I remember being so worried that I might have a late-term complication that would put me on bed rest, meaning I would eat into my paid time off before I even went on maternity leave. What would I do then? I had this overwhelming feeling (and still do) that women giving birth (and families adopting) are doing something incredible for society and should be supported, not put into positions of tacking together sick and vacation time, or having no paid time off at all.
I’ve also found myself surrounded more and more by women who are taking care of elderly family members. Here in Connecticut we’re facing a situation where our elderly population is skyrocketing. Many people are finding themselves in the position of having to care for an aging parent but to do so sometimes requires longer periods of time away from the job. I really believe that families that do their best to care for their older family members by keeping them at home longer are doing saints’ work. But sometimes these workers (most of whom are women) need to take leave and they shouldn’t have to worry about not being able to pay their bills as they care for a family member in need.
Winning FMLA was a huge victory – it provided millions of workers with job protection so they could take extended time off from work if needed. But it’s not enough. Not anymore.
Especially in the hard economic times our country has faced over the past several years, workers cannot afford to take unpaid time off from work so we’re going to work while living with serious illnesses, we’re going back to work after giving birth before we really want to and we’re driving ourselves crazy trying to figure out how to take care of our elderly family members while getting in our 40 hours.
The time for paid family leave is now. In Connecticut a movement is beginning. We have a strong coalition working to make paid FMLA a reality. We have a legislative task force that is currently reviewing the feasibility of a paid leave program and we know that public support is on our side.
For a society that preaches the importance of family values, let us put our money where our mouth is. Some of the most basic family values are taking care of our loved ones when they need us and taking care of ourselves so that we can be there for our families. Let’s truly support family values by making sure no worker has to suffer financially while taking care of his or her family.
Michelle Noehren is the Events & Special Projects Director for the Connecticut Permanent Commission on the Status of Women. She also co-chairs the Connecticut Family & Medical Leave Insurance Coalition. Follow the coalition via their website, Facebook & Twitter pages.