BENNINGTON -- A current bill before Congress aims to improve job security for working families by allowing paid medical leave.
The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act of 2013 (FAMILY Act) would allow employees to earn a portion of their wages for a limited period of time, and to address their own serious health issues including pregnancy or the birth of a child.
The FAMILY Act (Bill S. 881 / H.R. 1851) was introduced by Congress in May 2013, and must pass before the House and the Senate by December 2014 in order to become a law.
Sponsored by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and co-sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the bill's eligibility rules would benefit younger, part-time, low-wage and contingent workers, regardless of their employer's size or their length of time on the job.
Supporters of the bill say that should it be passed, it would strengthen the workforce, businesses and the economy by providing income stability for families at critical times in their lives.
Funding would be provided by both employees and employers, who would contribute an average of $1.50 from each paycheck to a self-sustaining fund administered by a new Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave, and would allow employees to take partially paid leave (as high as 66 percent of their monthly wages) for up to 60 workdays or 12 work-weeks in a one-year period.
Currently only 12 percent of workers in the United States have access to paid family leave through their employers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This can leave families juggling personal lives with the fear of losing their jobs or being unable to make ends meet during the birth of a child, which is the most expensive health event families face during their childbearing years, according to Amnesty International.
President of Bennington College Dr. Mariko Silver was pregnant with her second child when she was offered the position as the college's 10th president, which she has held since July.
As far as Silver knows she is the only president to have been hired at a university or college in the United States while pregnant.
"In general the community has been extraordinarily supportive," said Silver. "It was a very good experience for me in a variety of ways."
Silver resides on campus with her husband, Thom Loubet, and their two young daughters, and works in an environment that supports several other new mothers and parents of young children by having a family-friendly atmosphere in the workplace.
"It's been really wonderful for me to be able to integrate my work and family life," said Silver. "I know that's not ideal for everybody."
In a workplace where toys are readily brought out for visiting children and nursing mothers are given the opportunity to focus on their health and personal choices, Silver knows many others are not as fortunate.
"It was not always this way at Bennington but it's working out well for us," she said. Although offered personal leave, Silver found it so easy to take her children to work with her when necessary that she was back in the office soon after giving birth to her second child, working on a part-time basis.
The mother of Kumi, 20 months, and Aya, 3 months, Silver said one of the reasons she was convinced that moving to Bennington was the right decision was how the interview process was handled.
"I was never even asked whether or not I thought being pregnant would impede my ability to do the job," said Silver. "The assumption being that of course it wouldn't. It was clear that not only was it a non-issue, it was part of the Bennington culture."
On when it may be appropriate for a woman to tell a future employer about an impending pregnancy, Silver feels it depends on both the kind of position being sought, and the employer.
"I asked a number of people what they thought -- should I say it, should I put it out there, should I wait and see. Most of the advice I got from women was to tell them, and all of the advice I got from men was that it had nothing to do with my abilities," said Silver, who ultimately waited to share the information until further along in the hiring process.
Recent changes at the college have led to flexible maternity leave -- with staff offered the option to take off up to six months, with one term (about three months) being paid leave.
"Overall, there is a huge role for institutions to play and for the government to play to support working mothers," said Silver.
The FAMILY Act would also allow employees to take time off of work to deal with the serious health issue of a parent, spouse, domestic partner or child, and for certain military caregiving purposes.
"When we think about federal policy surrounding family medical leave we're not just talking about children, we're talking about older parents and others in your family who might need your support," said Silver.
"When you look at it in context of how far behind the U.S. is, in terms of recognizing this as an issue -- it's everybody except us basically, and many countries behind us who are not developed countries have decided that this is a priority."
The United States is one of only eight countries in the world that do not guarantee paid maternity leave to new mothers, according to a study published by Harvard University Press based on 188 countries for which data was available.
"It's all well and good to talk about what individuals can do, but federal policy really has an important role to play and this is not one of those things that should be left to the states," said Silver.
Calling the proposed FAMILY Act "a good thing for mothers and a good thing for the economy," Silver knows other families face much more difficult times when presented with the option of taking unpaid leave from work or leaving their children at home too soon.
"In essence I think my situation has been incredibly unique, which I think is unfortunate," she said. "It's still legal in 27 states to not hire someone because they are a parent, not even if they're pregnant. That speaks to obviously a much larger problem."
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 grants unpaid "family and temporary medical leave under certain circumstances," including pregnancy, but only applies to employees who have completed at least 12 months in their position.
Also a supporter of the bill, Susan Thom Loubet is the host of "Women's Focus," a program on the New Mexico public radio station KUNM-FM and executive director of New Mexico Women's Agenda.
"There's always the problem of paying for it, and we've had that (problem) ever since the national legislation was passed -- very few people can afford to take the leave if it's not paid for," said Loubet.
"Offering leave makes employees more productive and creates less job turnover," said Loubet, who recalled taking her only son to work with her in Manhattan in the mid-1970s.
"When he was a year old I took him to work with me, we had a policy of taking your children to work not just one day a year but all the time," said Loubet, of her job at Ms. Magazine.
Loubet's son is now married to Silver. The couple met as children, during a time when both their mothers worked for the publication, and later reconnected at a party in New York when Thom had become a musician, performing at a Ms. publisher's party.
Loubet moved west with her family to New Mexico, where she still resides, but recalls a time when time off was not a legal right but help with childcare was provided by others in her office.
"They would take him informally, to pick up lunch out for coffee," she said. "It was nice because a lot of people in the office, especially ones who didn't have their own children, would sort of take over caring for him."
Loubet said that in New Mexico, like Vermont, it is the small businesses that employ the most people.
"We have a problem -- it (FMLA) only affects employers who have 50 employees or more. The national Family Medical Leave Act applies to large employers, and most of our employers here are smaller than that.
Loubet is spearheading a task force that seeks to balance work and family by focusing on workplace policies.
"We're giving recognition to businesses that have family-friendly workplaces and highlighting how it makes them more successful."
Several Vermont organizations who are in support of the bill include the American Association of University Women of Vermont, the Vermont Breastfeeding Network and the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, Local 5221.
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