Ellen Bravo

Too many Americans are going to work sick or unable to take time to care for a family member. Ellen Bravo explains how we can change that.

When American workers finally get paid family leave, it’s no exaggeration to say that they’ll have Ellen Bravo to thank. Bravo, director of Family Values @Work, a 21-state coalition that is working to pass paid leave legislation at both the state and national level, has worked to organize women and men with this one policy goal for several decades. Bravo, who both wears her working-class identity proudly and can deliver data-driven talking points like a seasoned policy wonk, says that although the majority of employees are women working outside the home, most workplaces are still designed for men with wives at home.

In not providing any paid family leave for workers, the United States is alone among the world’s richest nations, all of which provide at least some paid leave time for each worker to care for a newborn or sick/elderly family member. Just 12 percent of US workers have any paid family leave from their employers. Bravo argues that the American workplace needs to be retrofitted to accommodate the realities of today’s workers, who are increasingly female, of color, and heads of households that place demands on their time and energy throughout the year.

Bravo’s own personal journey, combined with her skill as an organizer and policy advocate, places her in a unique position to help lead this movement. During the 1980s, she directed the efforts of the National Association of Working Women’s 9to5 wing, fighting against discrimination in the workplace and planting the seeds for affirmative rights. (Another leading activist for women’s rights, Karen Nussbaum, had her experience as a clerical worker in the 1970s become the basis for the Hollywood film Nine to Five, starring Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton.)

Her work with 9to5 helped win Wisconsin’s unpaid family leave law, which became the model for the national unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which passed the Congress and was signed by President Clinton in 1995. Now, with Family Values @Work, Bravo is transforming that base into a network of advocates who can lobby state governments to follow California’s and New Jersey’s examples and pass paid family leave.

Amy B. Dean spoke with Bravo about the current state of workplace rights in America, industry opposition to new labor standards, and the role of organized labor in promoting these laws.

ABD:  Compare today’s workplace policies with those when you first became active.

EB: On one hand, there’s been a lot more evidence that the policies we seek aren’t pie in the sky. These policies work: They benefit families, and they help reduce gender and income inequality. On the other hand, we’re so far from where we need to be. The growing shift in working conditions to more unpredictable schedules and less flexibility for lots of people, including men, is really frightening.

There have been a lot of changes since the 1970s. Today you’ll see a lot more employers who at least allow the modest family leave that we have in the Family Medical Leave Act. But only 12 percent of employees get paid leave from their employer, and 40 percent of the workforce has no paid sick days. That includes 80 percent of low-wage workers. Millions of people who do earn paid sick days can’t use them to care for a sick family member. Huge numbers of people get disciplined when they use their sick days.

The growing demand at the municipal level for sick pay is coming on the heels of the living wage movement. I wonder what you see as the next frontier.

The growth in the movement for paid sick days really happened over the last decade.

Those of us who started this came at it from the perspective of working with low-wage women. It is impossible to succeed, to get out of poverty, if you get punished for doing the very things that you need to do to be a good parent.

We had to find a way to value care-giving and to have men share that responsibility. We knew that wasn’t going to happen if we didn’t change public policy. We see paid sick days as going hand-in-hand with a wage floor. There’s a basic level of income people need in order to support themselves and their families with dignity. Time is also a basic floor. People need time for care-giving. Even in situations where we won a community benefit agreement that got local residents hired at good-paying jobs, they could be booted out in a minute just because they were being good parents.

How do you see the paid sick days campaign moving forward in the states?

We want to see enough of them succeed so that there’s momentum for a national standard and that the locals will keep improving their standards, because what we’re fighting for is minimal compared to the rest of the world. It’s embarrassingly minimal. We need to have a much more realistic standard of what people need. Being a good parent or following doctor’s orders shouldn’t cost you your paycheck or your job. It’s not an extra. I don’t even use the word “benefit” to talk about it anymore, because it’s really about not getting docked pay that you’ve earned.

Nearly 1 in 4 people in this country have either been fired or threatened with being fired for taking care of themselves or a loved one. The actual number that have been fired is 16 percent. This is a jobs policy. This is a job-retention policy. And it’s clearly important for business owners as well. It keeps turnover costs down and keeps productivity up. It’s important for the economy. People have got to have money in their pockets to spend. This is what our best business partners tell us. That’s why they’re speaking out with us.

I want to talk more about the business community. Just as the labor movement and the progressive social change organizations are not monoliths, there are lots of different sectors of the business community. Can you explain what industries most seem to understand the need for standards around this issue?

Within any sector, there are some businesses that understand this and do the right thing. Employees in retail, hospitality, and care occupations are the least likely to have the things that they need. They’re the people with the most contact with the public and, therefore, the most reason for them not to go to work sick. Yet they are the least likely to have sick days or to be able to afford the loss of pay.

At the same time, in every one of those industries, there are examples of high-road employers. Some of our best partners are in the restaurant business. There are people who understand that having flexible schedules, making sure people stay home when they’re sick, and paying people well is the best way to run a restaurant.

Generally speaking, male-dominated occupations are less likely to have flexibility for care-giving and more likely to assume that the workers have someone at home full time to do that. Sometimes it’s professional jobs where you have the time, but you’ll be sorry if you use it. Lawyers, for example, who want to be partners in their law firms feel they’ll be seen as uncommitted and less dedicated if they take more than a week to have a baby – much less if they don’t “power through” when they’re sick.

At the same time that we’re seeing the success of sick paid leave bills, we’re also seeing an effort to curtail some of this same legislation. Republicans are coming up with kill-shot bills on the state level to prohibit higher standards passes by cities. What kind of strategy can you offer to activists and their political allies to defend against these attacks?

Many of us are working collaboratively to try to stop these preemption bills. What they are is an attack on democracy and local control. It’s another version of voter suppression. In addition to trying to narrow who can vote, the right wing also wants to narrow what we can vote for.

My approach is: Make alliances with people on a very broad basis and show that conservatives preempting paid sick days is only the beginning. If they can do it for this, they can do it for everything else. Every other kind of standard for the environment, for domestic violence, for domestic partners as well as every kind of workplace reform [is at risk]. In Wisconsin, for example, when we won paid sick leave in Milwaukee in 2008, 70 percent of voters approved the ballot initiative. The Chamber of Commerce couldn’t defeat us at the ballot box, but they tried to defeat it with a lawsuit that had the support of groups like the National Restaurant Association. When that didn’t work, then they went to Scott Walker and the right wing of the legislature. During the time that the “Fab 14,” the Democratic senators left the state to try to stop a quorum for passing the budget in 2010, the Republicans rammed through a bill to steal paid sick days.

This year, so far, they got preemption through in Oklahoma and Alabama – but we stopped them in Washington, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

We always lament that the United States is so far behind Europe in health care and other social policies. Money and the role of corporations in our political economy play a part in that. But it’s not as though business doesn’t have similar interests in other countries. Why do things play out so differently here?

You can ask the same question about why the inequality gap is so much lower: The labor movement is much stronger in all these other countries.

What’s the relationship between strong labor movements at the local and state level and the ability of this kind of legislation to get passed? Are there examples where there haven’t been strong labor movements but paid sick leave laws have still been successful?

Every place we’ve won, labor has been a key partner. But so have groups that care about seniors and kids and diabetes and Alzheimer’s and ending domestic violence. They built very broad coalitions. The coalitions include labor as a central partner, and then all these other kinds of groups as well, plus business partners. That’s why they’ve been winning.

As you look forward, what ought we to be aspiring toward?

We need public policies that value people as whole people – who can succeed both in their work lives and their personal lives. In order for that to happen, we need to make sure that being a good parent or a good child to your parents is rewarded, not punished. That means having a substantial amount of time where people can draw a salary while they’re out caring for a new baby or a seriously ill family member, without jeopardizing their job. People shouldn’t have to worry about having to go to work sick or to send a kid to school sick and not being able to keep the lights on.

To get there, it means people would bargain and have a voice in the conditions of their work. It means people would work more collaboratively to design the work. We can afford to do it. There are two women who studied what it would take to have a year of paid leave, that a couple would share, and quality daycare. Where the workweek would be 35 hours and you’d have universal health care.

What would it cost to have all those things? They figured out it would cost 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product. How could we afford to do that? If you just forget all the money that’s wasted on illegal wars and just talk about corporate welfare and tax loopholes: They eat up 7.5 percent of the GDP! If we could fix that, we could easily afford this.

We named our network Family Values at Work. What we wanted to do in reclaiming that phrase is to say we can’t be a nation that values families if those values end at the workplace door. We can’t be the nation we say we are if the very thing that makes you a good parent or a good child to your parent is what costs you your family’s security.

Published originally at Truthout.

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Photo by Center for American Progress under Creative Commons license