Tuesday, October 21, 2008

We All Deserve Time to Be with Ailing Loved Ones

The illness of Barack Obama’s grandmother reminds us that health problems often pop up at inconvenient times. I tried to train my children to get sick only on evenings or weekends, or at least to alert me a couple days before they came down with an ear infection or a stomach virus. Alas, it never worked. The deterioration of an aging loved one can also creep up on us with little advance notice or regard for other pressing events.

I applaud Senator Obama for taking time from his campaign to be with his grandmother. It’s great to see a male politician make a priority of caregiving.

Even more, I applaud him for wanting to make sure others can do the same by championing new standards such as paid sick days, making family leave available to millions more people, and providing funds to states to make that leave affordable.

Today, more than half the private sector workforce is not protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Nearly three million a year who are covered need the leave but can’t afford to take it. And the FMLA doesn’t cover routine illness. Half the workforce—and three-fourths of low wage workers—have no paid sick days. For millions of Americans, being at the bedside of an ill child, partner or parent could mean losing a paycheck or even a job.

In the mid 1990s, I was appointed by Congress to serve on a bi-partisan Commission on Leave to study the impact of the FMLA on employers and employees. The Commission had twelve members—six chosen because their organizations had worked hard to pass the law, the other six because they’d done whatever they could to defeat it.

An interesting thing happened during our meetings. Three times one of the opponents ran into the reality of a work-family crisis. One woman’s daughter had a baby born with only one arm. Her daughter took every day of the 12 weeks permitted under FMLA to learn how to care for her beloved baby and to find a caregiver who would do the same.

This commission member had been adamant that we should not expand family leave to the two-third of businesses currently exempt from the law because they don’t have 50 or more employees. I remember the day she told us about her daughter. “If someone in a smaller firm were in this situation,” she acknowledged, “they would need the same amount of time. How can I be against that?”

The bombing of the Oklahoma federal building, where this same daughter worked, happened soon afterwards. Everyone on the commission was aware that the relatives of those affected by the tragedy were not all permitted to be at the side of their loved ones.

Another opponent had a godson who tried to commit suicide. This man missed one of our commission meetings to be at the hospital while the family made wrenching decisions about life support. “I know the law doesn’t cover god children,” he told us later, “but no one was going to keep me from being there.”

When the time came to issue a report, these commission members and the other opponents all voted against expanding the law. Ideology trumped experience and common sense.

These folks could afford to stand in the way of expanding protections to our nation’s workers—they already had the leave they needed. It’s time to make sure every worker in this country can be a good family member without risking his or her job.

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