Congress finally listening on paid family and medical leave

Women who would be most affected bring their voices to Capitol Hill

SOMETHING UNUSUAL HAPPENED recently on Capitol Hill. A Congressional committee seeking expertise on paid leave and child care invited a group of experts with the greatest insight and the least access to the halls of power — women who’ve struggled during the pandemic and long before because of the lack of affordable leave and child care. These witnesses had a clear message: People can only get to work and stay employed if they can take care of themselves and those they love.

Now, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, Richard Neal, has announced a new paid leave discussion draft informed by these witnesses and by years of struggle to win comprehensive, inclusive paid family and medical leave. And the president is rolling out the American Families Plan with many of the same features.

Bethany Santos Fauteux of New Bedford was among those invited to the hearing held by the Ways and Means committee. The event’s title well described her life: “In Their Own Words: Paid Leave, Child Care and an Economy That Failed Women.”

Like millions of others, Bethany saw her hours cut and her responsibilities grow during the pandemic. Like many, she feels like she “can’t work and can’t not work” — she’s now a caregiver for her mother, diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, as well as her two children, ages 7 and 13. She’s also the one who has to pay the bills.

Bethany Santos Fauteux

For Bethany and so many others, these struggles didn’t start with the pandemic. She was a state-certified early childhood educator forced to return to work three weeks after giving birth to her son. “As I sat on the floor taking care of other mothers’ children,” Bethany told the committee members, “the pain of my C-section stitches didn’t compare to the pain of not being with my own brand new baby.” 

Low pay and lack of benefits drove Bethany to leave the profession she loved, a job that benefited kids of color growing up with a childhood like her own. She moved into restaurant work, still low pay but at least “I wasn’t drowning,” she said.

One ray of hope from Bethany’s story: Her experiences led her to become an activist. She joined the Coalition for Social Justice in a successful fight for a robust paid leave program in Massachusetts, one of 10 state programs won by the Family Values @ Work network and our partners. And now Bethany’s a member of the Voices of Workers who advise the national Paid Leave for All campaign. 

“I’m the 99 percent that doesn’t have a trust fund,” Bethany said, “and these are basic human rights. Every other civilization has figured it out. Are the people who decide policy, who have paid leave thanks to my taxes, telling me I’m not important enough to have access to the same support?”

Bethany reminded the committee members of how often reforms have been passed that left out women of color and other low-paid workers. “Please pass paid family and medical leave now,” she implored them. “Make it affordable, make it secure, make it include me and the millions like me.” That means making sure the wage replacement is progressive, so that those who earn the least amount will get the highest percentage of their wages. It means defining family in a way that embraces all families in the US today.

Both of those provisions are included in the Neal legislation, which calls for 12 weeks of paid time to care for a new child or a serious personal or family illness. A third component, guaranteeing those who take the leave they need can return to their job, falls under the jurisdiction of the Education and Labor Committee, where our movement will continue to make its case. 

Meet the Author
Thirty-three years ago, I sat with a group of children in Madison, Wisconsin, testifying in support of a statewide family and medical leave act. They shared powerful stories of times their parents  needed leave to care for them or for another family member. The governor had delegated the secretary of employment relations to meet with the kids. When they finished speaking, the secretary thanked them and said, “We’re so used to hearing from lobbyists, we often forget about the people who are impacted by the bills we pass.”

Today, thanks to the power of our movement, more decision-makers are listening to workers like Bethany. The stakes couldn’t be higher: The nation’s physical and economic health depends on it. 

Ellen Bravo is a founder and now Strategic Advisor to Family Values @ Work, a network of statewide coalitions working for policies such as paid family and medical leave.