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Home · Op-Ed

Paid Leave Is A Necessity

Doctor comforting patient in office Getty
By Daria Dawson · September 20, 2019

On February 5, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the legislation that allows employees unpaid leave for medical or family events. Only 13-years-old at the time, I had no idea what FMLA meant or why it seemed important.   Furthermore, I had no idea of the endless significance of the legislation in my own life until three years later.

In 1996, when I was in the eleventh grade, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation of the digestive tract, which can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition.

The reality is that Crohn’s disease is devastating . . . because of its unpredictable nature (flare-ups and remissions), and an individual has no idea when it is going to make its special guest appearance or how long it will last. 

Neither my parents nor I had ever heard of this chronic illness, which was finally diagnosed after months of medical tests—following a surgery to remove a severe case of hemorrhoids) – Since that time, I was prescribed—and have taken—many medications: Prednisone and Flagyl; I have gone to the hospital for hours’ long infusions of Remicaid and given myself shots of Humira at home.  I’ll never forget, however, the summer my doctors me off food altogether (to give my digestive system a rest) and allowed me only clear liquid during the day and nourishment to my body via a feeding tube at night. Oh, and yes, I have had five surgeries, including one which resulted in the removal of my large intestine when I was 21.

I will wear an ileostomy bag for the rest of my life.

Education and career wise, I completed high school; received both a bachelor’s degree and a law degree; worked in a state legislature, on Capitol Hill, two major labor unions, and on several campaigns: from Presidentials to ballot initiatives; and I even started my own business.  At the same time, I have endured my fair share of flare-ups and remissions, some minor, such as a few days at local hospitals, and some major, including a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. At some point, my family joked, “Daria’s on her summer vacation again!!”  Summer Vacay = Hospital Stay.

Today, we watch television, and almost without fail, a commercial advertises new medications for Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis (UC) as medical research for this chronic illness has advanced. Unfortunately, the federal leave system in the United States for medical illnesses (and in many cases—the birth of a child, which should not be defined as a “condition”) has not advanced. In fact, it has not changed since February 5, 1993.

I have been fortunate to work for employers that allocated paid sick leave, but unfortunately, only 15 percent of all workers have access to paid family leave through their employers.  Also, when a chronic illness flares up, there is little preparation time to notify employers.  When I am sick, I am sick, and I cannot focus on anything but the cumbersome pain.  However, my need to take off a few days or, in some cases, weeks or months so that I may heal does not mean that I no longer have bills to pay, but FMLA is UNPAID LEAVE.  And that’s not its only limitation.

To be eligible for FMLA, a person must work for an employer who more than 50 employees (I’m sure that’s something we all consider when we apply for a job). In addition, the worker must have been on-board at least 12 months (FYI, my Crohn’s does not know a calendar). Also, under FMLA, eligible employees are entitled a total of up to twelve work weeks of unpaid leave during any twelve-month period, and the employer must return the employee to the same or equivalent job position at the conclusion of any FMLA leave. Translation: There’s no guarantee that the job you applied for, worked, and fell in love with will there be there when the leave ends.

To sum it up, FMLA is unpaid; it does not protect a position, and it only allows for twelve weeks of leave.  Who said that twelve weeks was the magic number of weeks needed to recover from Crohn’s, cancer, or childbirth anyway?!?

One out of 4 women will return to work 10 days after giving birth. Many of these women return to work so soon because they are employed where they are not paid for work they do not perform. As someone who has spent more than half of her career in the labor movement, and where a significant amount of that time was with the Fight for 15 campaign, it is not lost on me that low-wage workers, many who are women of color, may be a part of this 1 out of 4.

And being a woman of color, and specifically a Black woman, I have to highlight that more than one in four Black workers report that there was a time in the last two years that they needed or wanted to take time away from work for parental, family or medical reasons but could not… I said workers, not women! Also, only 30 percent of Black mothers are both eligible for and able to afford to take unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Despite the magnitude of the issue, it has rarely been discussed amongst the Democratic Presidential candidates. And unfortunately, the biggest paid leave champion, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, is no longer running for president. Who is going to be the Paid Leave champion on the debate stage now?

Paid leave is not just a women’s issue.

Nor just a white women’s issue.

Nor just a family issue.

It is a healthcare issue.

It is an economic issue.

And it is an issue that Democratic primary voters care about!

Paid Leave United States (PL +US Action), recently surveyed likely Democratic primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Here’s what we found:

•          Nearly half of Democratic primary and caucus voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina have taken unpaid leave from work, and taking that unpaid leave caused financial problems for them.

•          Support for paid family leave is nearly universal (92 percent) and intense (74 percent strongly support), spanning all four of the early primary/caucus states.

•          Support for paid leave was particularly high among people of color—who faced disproportionate financial hardship from unpaid leave.

•          Most voters say that a national paid family and medical leave policy is very important to them—77% of voters said “important” or “very important.”

•          Voters report saying they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports a national paid family and medical leave policy (86 percent more likely to support, including 47 percent who are much more likely).

My point is that paid leave is an issue that voters care very deeply about, but yet those in politics driving the narrative, based on networks that have hosted the Democratic debates, must not believe that this issue is important enough to even be talked about for FIVE minutes. However, some fortunate enough to work for some of these networks have been able to take significant time off to attend to personal needs. I’m glad Hoda Kotb is back on the “Today Show,” but what makes her bonding with her new baby any more different or special than the front-line service workers’ bonding with their new baby?

Whether we want to admit it or not, people need to attend to personal life circumstances—be it a new child, an illness of a loved one, or in my case, a personal chronic illness. And just so you know, my parents take leave to attend to me when I’m sick, and like me, they are fortunate to have employers with great leave policies, but again, we’re in the 15 percentile of Americans with this benefit.

To go back to my own story, recovery is an exhausting process, and the burden of thinking about receiving a full paycheck while focusing on health is inhumane. We as Americans can and should do better. I challenge all candidates running for office to do better and speak up on this issue. I challenge producers and moderators to do better and ask questions on this issue. I challenge voters to do better and speak with your preferred candidate (if you have made a choice) and share your personal story of why paid leave is important to you.

My story is not unique, nor is it special. I’ve just decided to share my story to highlight a federal policy that emphatically needs a 21st century makeover because let’s be honest:  1993 was so last century.

Daria Dawson is the Director of Political Affairs at PL+US Action Fund.