The case for paid family leave and a boost in minimum wage
25 years after federal leave law passed, it's time for Massachusetts to step up
25 YEARS AGO, on February 5, 1993, President Clinton signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows certain workers to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to deal with a serious health condition, have a baby, bond with a newborn or adopted child, or take care of a seriously ill relative.
The FMLA was a major stride forward for the rights of workers and their families, but after a quarter century the program’s major gaps are clear. The FMLA does not cover about 40 percent of the workforce, including workers at smaller companies and those who have recently changed jobs. And many workers who are eligible FMLA can’t afford to take unpaid time off from work in an emergency. They’re often left to choose between taking care of a child they love or keeping the job that puts food on the table.
A few years before the FMLA was passed, another aspect of Massachusetts labor laws was at a low point. The state’s $3.75 minimum wage in 1991 was only worth $6.90 in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars, the lowest real value in modern state history. Since then, we’ve made progress, most recently in 2014, but today’s minimum wage is still not enough for a full-time worker to get by on. Many workers earning the minimum wage work two or three jobs and still can’t afford the cost of groceries, housing, heating, and other basic needs.
Today, 25 years after the FMLA was signed, a grassroots coalition of community organizations, faith groups, and labor unions is advancing a pair of policies that would help fix these problems and strengthen our Commonwealth’s economy. This fall, the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition collected over 274,000 signatures from registered voters across the state to place two questions on the November 2018 ballot: paid family and medical leave and an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.
When it comes to paid family and medical leave, the example of the FMLA shows how important it is that a paid leave program cover all workers. Family and medical emergencies can happen to people who work for small companies, those who just started new jobs, and independent contractors. This legislation should make sure they are covered.
Opponents of the minimum wage increase are already calling for a sub-minimum wage for teen workers, but this legislation shouldn’t discriminate against youth who are saving for college or helping their family make ends meet. Teens are only about 10 percent of workers that would be affected by a minimum wage increase to $15 by 2022, but teen workers in low-income families account for an average of 17.7 percent of their family income. Teen workers are often important wage-earners for their families, and we shouldn’t cut their pay.
A sub-minimum wage would also hurt our college completion rates. In Massachusetts, college students at public institutions already work about 28 hours per week, on average. When students work too much, it can hurt their GPAs and lead to dropouts. Ensuring that teen workers can earn and save money for college will help let college students focus on their studies.
In 2016, teen unemployment in Massachusetts and overall unemployment rates fell to their lowest rates in the past 18 years – despite minimum wage increases during this same period. At the same time, income inequality in Massachusetts is at record levels, and the gap between the very rich and the rest of us keeps growing.
It’s clear that the big problem in our economy isn’t that low-wage workers are being paid too much, or that benefits for working people are too generous. It’s that too many people are working every hour they can but still can’t get ahead, and that for too many working people, a family emergency can quickly turn into a financial disaster.This spring, let’s change that by passing paid family and medical leave and a $15 minimum wage for all workers in Massachusetts.
Natalie Higgins is a Democratic state representative from Leominster; Byron Rushing is a Democratic state representative from Boston; Denise Provost is a Democratic state representative from Somerville.