As election day approaches, it’s easy to forget that there’s more than the presidency at stake: All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate are up for grabs as well.
The outcome of these races will, if anything, be even more critical to concerns faced by working parents than who takes control of the Oval Office. Because ultimately, for each of us 25 million working moms in the united states today, it’s Congress that wields the most power to make the workplace family-friendly. Unfortunately, despite nonstop election-year chatter about the state of the economy, many lawmakers don’t seem too concerned that antiquated laws and policies make it difficult to care for a family while earning a living.
Those who understand the importance of keeping parents working deserve our kudos: For the third biennial Best of Congress awards, Working Mother and Corporate Voices for Working Families, a nonprofit national business membership group, have joined to honor 30 members of Congress who have our best interests in mind. For the first time, however, we faced an unusual challenge in making our choices: a lack of tangible legislative achievements to use in evaluating members’ votes in support of working moms. Among the two dozen family-friendly measures proposed by members on both sides of the aisle in 2011, just one—the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, providing retraining assistance for veterans and tax incentives for employers to hire them—was signed into law. Other long-sought goals, such as a federal paid parental leave act, languished in legislative limbo without even making it into a committee hearing, much less a full vote in either chamber.
“In this Congress, relationships have been strained,” says Nathan Constable, manager of government relations for Corporate Voices. “The bipartisan spirit you would have seen in the past on some of these issues wasn’t there.”
While there are still a few months left in the 112th Congress, few observers expect anything to happen before the November elections. That should leave plenty of work for the next Congress, so the outcome of congressional races is crucial. two of our 2012 best of congress winners—Senators Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX)—are retiring this year; a third, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), is running for Kohl’s senate seat. “We’re hopeful that candidates will push issues like equal pay and the economic security of families to the forefront,” says Leticia Mederos, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, which advocates for family-friendly workplaces. The organization has joined with Working Mother to launch a petition for mandated paid parental leave in the U.S.; we had 7,000 signatures by press time.
The issues we hope the next Congress will focus on to support working families:
Paid Parental Leave
Ever since the passage, nearly 20 years ago, of the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)— which mandates that most companies allow workers to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave for childbirth, medical emergencies or caregiving—advocates have pushed for a paid version. (The United States still stands alone among industrialized nations as lacking such a policy.) However, the economic downturn has complicated the debate, with opponents arguing that any type of required leave would add an unfair cost to employers struggling to survive. But that’s a misperception, counters the National Partnership for Women & Families, which recently commissioned a study by Rutgers University on paid leave policies. It found that paid leave helps companies retain employees and improve productivity.
“The opposition is painting this as an ‘employer versus employee’ issue,” says Mederos. “Our research shows instead that it’s win-win.” Among other things, the Rutgers study found that in California, the first of five states to adopt a paid leave program (it is based on the state’s existing disability insurance system), employees are far more likely to take time with newborns than parents in states lacking such policies. This brief time off has been linked to health and economic benefits for the parents and children directly affected, and also for businesses and the public in general, the research showed.
Seeing a comprehensive law as untenable in the current political climate, some members of Congress are supporting a more limited bill that would require the federal government to offer paid parental leave. “The nation’s largest employer should be a leader in family-friendly policies,” says Best of Congress Winner Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who supports the measure. States are also taking up the slack: Like California, New Jersey mandates paid leave, not only for childbirth but also for adoption or to care for a sick family member. The Obama White House supports adoption of such measures through a proposed state Paid Leave Fund.
Over the last decade, companies have begun reaping the benefits of higher productivity and employee retention from allowing workers to telecommute or adjust schedules. While virtually every Best of Congress winner allows telecommuting in his or her office, there’s been little federal action to encourage acceptance beyond the beltway. “Some of these ideas become controversial very fast, which is strange, especially when there’s such a positive impact,” says Best of Congress steering committee member Patricia Kempthorne, a former Republican first lady of Idaho and head of the Twiga Foundation in Boise, which works to raise awareness of flexibility.
The Working Families Flexibility Act, introduced this year by Best of Congress winners Robert Casey (D-PA) in the Senate and Rep. Maloney in the House, would require employers to consider flexibility requests from workers. Several other legislators have put forth variations of this idea, such as offering tax credits for equipment purchased for use by telecommuting employees.
With the recession taking a toll on job security and family income, getting paid fairly for work done—no matter your gender—is gaining traction as a hot button issue. And it isn’t difficult to see where a lawmaker stands: the Paycheck Fairness Act, introduced in both houses in early 2011, garnered 180 co-sponsors in the House and 35 in the Senate; however, Senate opponents blocked a vote on the measure (along strictly partisan lines) in early June. The bill was meant to strengthen the equal pay act’s ban on sex discrimination in the payment of wages and, among other things, prohibit an employer from retaliating against someone who discusses salaries with a co-worker.
Paid Sick Leave
With no rule to guide them, Congress members’ own office sick leave policies are varied: all best of congress winners offer it as needed; most offer an average of one day a month, on top of annual paid leave of up to 30 days. But there is little legislative action to require employers to do the same. here again, some states are taking the lead: Connecticut recently mandated sick leave, and several other states, including California, have had such policies in place for a while. Fears that this measure would cost employers are unfounded, supporters say; in fact, not having sick leave is costly because employees come to work ill, impacting job performance and infecting colleagues. According to several studies cited by the National Partnership, this syndrome costs the country close to $180 billion in lost productivity and added health care, yet some 60 million americans lack any paid sick leave.
The Balancing Act of 2011, a bill that included mandates like sick leave and funding for afterschool education, was introduced in the House last year but has yet to garner bipartisan support. Another measure, the Family and Medical Leave Inclusion Act, would amend the FMLA to provide leave to care for a domestic partner, grandparent or in-law. Former Rep. Patricia Schroeder says the original FMLA law is overdue for an upgrade, and she should know: she was one of its original sponsors. “We had to water it down so much to get it passed, I was embarrassed,” she says. “It was always intended as just a beginning.”
Pumping at Work
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which took effect in March of 2010, for the first time required break times for nursing mothers. Employers must offer “reasonable” time for employees to express milk as well as a space other than a restroom with a modicum of privacy. There are the usual exceptions, such as companies with fewer than 50 employees (much like FMLA), but the critical issue for congress to watch is compliance. According to Kempthorne of the Twiga Foundation, it’s a no-brainer for those on both sides of the aisle: “With lactation protection laws, we are recognizing that this is life,” she says.
The Breastfeeding Promotion Act, introduced last year by Rep. Maloney, would amend the civil rights act to protect employees’ rights to take “reasonable” breaks to express milk and to prohibit employers from discriminating against mothers who choose to exercise that right.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which is already on the books, prohibits discrimination against pregnant women due to their condition. However, the law stops short of requiring employers to consider requests for flexible work conditions or accommodations to protect a woman’s health—or her unborn child’s. Legislation to rectify that lapse was introduced in May by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and at press time had attracted 78 co-sponsors. The bill would, among other things, allow women to switch temporarily from physically demanding jobs to light duty without jeopardizing their job security or chances for a promotion.
Making Your Vote Count
How to assess the candidates running in your district with so little to go on? Don’t be taken in by campaign literature, says Former Rep. Patricia Schroeder, who notes that some members proclaim pro-family policies in public only to work against them behind the scenes. Even with few actual votes to assess, check out who has signed on as a co-sponsor to such important measures as the Expanding Dependent and Child Care Act (HR 2481) and the Working Families Flexibility Act (HR 4106). The website govtrack.us offers a user-friendly search feature so you can see what your elected representative supported or voted for; you can also sign up for alerts on key measures.
All members of Congress were invited to submit applications detailing their office policies and advocacy work, as well as legislation they have sponsored and voted on. Corporate Voices for Working Families and Working Mother scored the applications and tabulated results with the help of a bipartisan steering committee (below). We looked primarily at the members’ own office policies and constituent work because so few relevant laws have been passed. Steering committee member and former Massachusetts governor Jane Swift agrees this is a valid litmus test. “Sometimes public officials have some of the worst policies on balancing work and family,” she says. “This should force folks to see if they live up to their own goals.”
- Ted Childs, founder and principal of Ted Childs, LLC
- Arianna Huffington (co-chair), president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group
- Patricia Kempthorne, president of the Twiga Foundation
- Hon. Patricia Schroeder, former congresswoman from Colorado
- Hon. Jane Swift (co-chair), CEO of Middlebury Interactive Languages; former governor of Massachusetts