Congress Flirts with Mandating Paid Maternity Leave, Other Women's Benefits

WASHINGTON – Paid maternity leave and sick days, a higher minimum wage, and pay equity legislation could address a range of women’s economic issues, panelists told a Senate committee during a hearing last week.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held its second hearing in a month last week to discuss legislative proposals to help women succeed in the workplace.

Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) noted in his opening remarks that the United States is the only industrialized nation without a federal law providing workers access to paid maternity leave. He said the U.S. must strive to provide paid maternity leave and other workplace benefits that the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 does not mandate.

“We have to make accommodations to make this possible. …It doesn’t cost a lot of money and makes it possible for women to both be caregivers and be allowed to work,” Harkin said.

Harkin said he became aware of the need for better workplace policies for women when his wife, Ruth, had a baby shortly after being elected county attorney of Story County, Iowa.

“She cleaned out a broom closet in her office to make a place for a crib or bassinet, and she took [the baby] to work every day and nursed,” Harkin said. “That raised a lot of eyebrows in the courthouse in Iowa, someone bringing their baby to work and nursing. She could do that because she was an elected official, but what if she worked somewhere else?”

A recent United Nations study reported the United States is the only Western country – and one of only three in the world – that does not provide some kind of monetary payment to new mothers who have taken maternity leave from their jobs.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Texas) said creating more jobs and providing more flexibility for female workers would more effectively empower women than a government mandate.

“Sometimes the debate here in this committee is between what I call the ‘mandaters,’ or those who see a need and say, ‘We can tell you what to do,’ and the ‘empowerers’ – those who see a need and say, ‘We will empower you to do those things,’” Alexander said. “Almost every time we impose new mandates, we destroy jobs.”

Alexander criticized calls to increase the federal minimum wage, saying creating more jobs would have a greater impact on the economic security of women.

“The Congressional Budget Office said the proposal to raise the minimum wage would destroy 500,000 jobs,” he said. “Why would we want to pass something that would destroy jobs?”

Connecticut AFL-CIO Executive Secretary-Treasurer Lori Pelletier told the committee that collective bargaining gives women workers more economic security by increasing their chances of having access to workplace benefits, such as employer-provided health insurance, paid family leave, and short-term disability benefits.

“Unions today continue to be critical to the economic security of working women and their families, who still face an uphill battle in the workplace,” Pelletier said.

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, said more than 6 in 10 women are the primary or co-breadwinners for their families. Yet, on average, women continue to earn less than their male counterparts do. Tanden said women still make 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. The disparity for minority women is even greater.

“If we want real economic progress, we need policies that respond to the everyday challenges facing the diverse group of women who are part of today’s economy, particularly those women who too often get ignored,” Tanden said.

Tanden noted that California’s paid leave model could serve as an example of a domestic program that effectively tackles the issue.

“The vast majority of businesses report that this [program] is a positive or neutral [impact] on their bottom line. It increases productivity, it helps keep workers, it helps retain women workers, which often have to come out of the workforce and then come in at a lower salary than they otherwise would,” she said.

Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, said the lack of policies providing paid sick days, family and medical leave insurance for millions of workers hinders the U.S. economy.

“Women and families in this country will not have real economic security until their earnings and their jobs are protected when they or a family member needs care,” Bravo said.

Bravo praised the FMLA for being “a great first step for families,” but, she added, “as our economy and our families have changed, so too must our laws.”

The FMLA provides eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to tend to medical needs and emergencies.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, nearly 40 percent of the workforce does not earn paid sick days.

She urged Congress to expand the FMLA to cover those currently excluded.

“We have a growing body of evidence that shows these policies are good for women’s economic security, for families, and for businesses’ bottom lines. We should not have the situation where having economic security is at odds with the emotions and physical health of our loved ones and yet that’s where we are,” Bravo said.

While women have made gains into typically male-dominated professions, Tanden said these gains have been unequal. About 44 percent of women still work in only 20 types of low-paying jobs, such as nurses, teachers, and salespeople. Women in these types of jobs typically lack access to benefits that help balance work and family life.

Armanda Legros, a single mother who lives in Queens, New York, asked the committee to pass legislation to help women who, like her, are the sole breadwinners in the family.

Legros lost her job at an armored truck company when she was six and a half months pregnant with her second son in 2012. After pulling a muscle in her stomach one day at work, she took a week off to recover. When she returned to work with a doctor’s note advising her to avoid heavy lifting for the remainder of the pregnancy, her manager sent her home indefinitely with no pay.

“If you truly value families, and children, then you have to make sure that the women who bear those children and raise them can earn the fair and equal wages we need to support them,” she said.