Commentary: Black women workers need ‘real’ paid family leave

Commentary: Black women workers need ‘real’ paid family leave
August 09
02:00 2018

By Melanie Campbell and Jennifer Tucker

When Dorcas, a home health aide living in New York, learned of her mother’s illness, she used most of her vacation time to fly home and care for her. After a few weeks her leave was exhausted and tragically she could no longer afford to be with her mother in the final days of her illness. In the end, Dorcas was forced to take unpaid leave, and return to Florida, arriving just hours before her mother passed away.

Dorcas counts every penny and the unpaid time resulted in a mountain of unpaid bills and financial challenges that lingered well into the following year. Dorcas weathered that storm. But she says, “It still pains me that I wasn’t able to be with my mom during her last days.”

Dorcas’ story is one of many shared in the Family Values@Work story collection.

Dorcas’ story exemplifies a crushing dilemma that many Black women workers face every day when caring for themselves or a family member. Life shouldn’t be this way but it is the reality for far too many in the United States.

On July 11, the Senate Finance Committee’s Social Security, Pensions and Family Policy Subcommittee held a hearing on paid family leave that featured two very different policy options.

The “real” policy is the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act that creates a national insurance program to fund the time needed to welcome a new baby, address one’s own health issue, or the serious health issue of a family member. It also includes time for certain military families’ care giving purposes.

Employees, employers and self-employed workers would fund both the benefits and the administrative costs of the program by contributing a small amount in each pay period to a self-sustaining fund.

The FAMILY Act builds on programs in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island and with the newest programs being implemented in New York, Washington, the District of Columbia, and Massachusetts.

The “fake” paid family leave option restricts participation to only leave for parents of a new child and diverts social security funds to pay for the program. U.S. Senators Joni Ernst (Iowa), Mike Lee (Utah) and Marco Rubio (Florida) plan to introduce legislation covering only the birth or adoption of a child.

This deeply flawed proposal will require people to borrow against their social security accounts, delaying their retirement date or receiving a decreased retirement benefit. For most Black women, social security makes up at least half of their income stream during retirement, according to the 2014 Black Women in the United States report by the Black Women’s Roundtable.

This proposal would result in even smaller social security, death or disability benefits, making the retirement security of older Black women even more, precarious than it is currently.

Any paid family leave proposal that ignores the caregiving responsibilities that families are facing for older relatives is outdated. According to the AARP Policy Institute, each year, 40 million American adults assist loved ones with tasks of daily living.

Family members are helping with eating and bathing, household chores and nursing tasks so people can age in place. Surprisingly, of these 40 million family caregivers, about 25 percent are millennials, between the ages of 18 -34 years old. One in three employed millennial family caregiver earns less than $30,000 per year – that includes nearly 30 percent of Black family caregivers.

We urge policymakers to deliver paid family leave programs that fit the times and their constituents’ diverse needs. Black workers and their families need and deserve #RealPaidLeave. Our nation deserves nothing less.

Melanie Campbell is president/CEO, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, convener, Black Women’s Roundtable. Jennifer Tucker is senior policy advisor, Black Women’s Roundtable. The Black Women’s Roundtable was established in 1983 as the women and girls empowerment arm of the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation.

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