Photo: Margaret W. Nea, Bread for the World
Have you ever had to choose between keeping your job and caring for a sick family member? Not really a fair choice, is it?
Unfortunately, for many people, and Latinos in particular, being a responsible employee and being a good family member are mutually exclusive. For many Hispanics, familia, which often includes an extended network of relations, is one of the greatest sources of joy and support. Thus, having access to benefits that allow Latinos to care for their families is of vital importance. As the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)—a national law that allows workers to take 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year to care for themselves or their loved ones—turns 20 this week, it is important to celebrate the fact that millions of workers have benefited from this important law, but we must also shed light on those who cannot enjoy its benefits.
In today’s economy, a majority of Latinos prioritize having a protected and steady job. Many Hispanic workers in the low-wage market do not ask for days off for fear of losing their jobs. They deal with other significant hurdles on a daily basis, such as unpaid wages, unpredictable schedules, discrimination, no health insurance, and dangerous working conditions. Many are unaware of their right to take unpaid leave. Another half of our workforce doesn’t have access to FMLA benefits, a segment that includes a majority of Latino workers. Given that Latinos are more likely to be employed in the low-wage labor market and work in part-time positions, they rarely have access to benefits like FMLA or paid vacation. In fact, 45% of all Hispanic workers in the U.S. have access to paid sick days, compared to 60% of the total population, and many of these workers cannot take unscheduled leave to attend to health needs. This results in adverse consequences for the health and economic security of workers and their families.
Take Rosa for example, a housekeeper who after 14 years of working at the same hotel could not request vacation days or weekends off. She was forced to endure the pain and injuries caused by her job, which paid below-poverty wages and offered an irregular work schedule. Due to her low wages, even if Rosa had access to FMLA benefits, she could not afford to take unpaid leave. According to a recent Department of Labor study of FMLA, nearly eight in ten eligible workers who had a qualifying event said they didn’t take leave because it was financially impossible to do so. Employers that fail to offer family leave or paid sick benefits increase the susceptibility of Latino workers like Rosa to economic and health challenges.
(Photo on right by Congressman George Miller's office: Congress celebrates the FMLA 20th Anniversary) So while we join millions of people in celebrating the anniversary of FMLA, we also look to the work that lies ahead: covering more workers through the FMLA and creating a national paid leave insurance program. Fortunately, we already have proof that we can do this well. Successful paid sick policies in San Francisco, Seattle, and the District of Columbia are blueprints for national legislation that would allow workers to earn paid sick days and protect the economic security of their families. American workers cannot afford to delay the passage of legislation like the “Healthy Families Act,” which would allow all workers, even part-time workers, to accrue paid sick leave based on the numbers of hours they work. Now is the time to take FMLA to the next level and ensure that the workplace is friendly to all familias.