Friday, August 22, 2008


This plank is potentially promising -- depending on what the stated policy commitments actually mean and how they are to be operationalized. Unfortunately, there's lots of wiggle room, because broad pledges are not backed up by specifics. The one reference to a specific plan of action is disappointing.

What's promising here is the focus on family leave -- on expanding the conception of covered leave beyond pregnancy/adoption and personal/spousal illness. The family leave issue does not mark a new direction for the Democrats -- the 2004 platform called for expanding family leave, too -- but the idea that leave should encompass situations beyond parenting and nuclear family sickness is an important elaboration. The commitment expressed here is for the FMLA to cover workers who take leave to care for an elderly parent, address domestic violence and sexual assault, "or attend a parent teacher conference" (this last circumstance is not exactly in the same ballpark).

However, expansions of the categories or circumstances of guaranteed leave do not correct some of the fundamental deficits of existing law. For example, given the Defense of Marriage Act, the FMLA does not extend the leave guarantee to lesbian or gay workers in marriages who need it to care for a sick spouse. Nor does the FMLA extend the leave guarantee to same sex partners in civil unions or other non-marital relationships. Meanwhile, non-biological parents in same-sex unions who are denied adoption rights in some jurisdictions are not eligible for the parenting component of the FMLA guarantee. Without changes in the FMLA and/or marriage equality for same sex partners, the expansion of leave protections to domestic violence situations will not be useful to same sex partners exiting abusive relationships; and expansions of caregiving criteria for leave will repeat exclusions of workers caring for a sick same sex partner or raising a non-biological child in a same-sex parental union.

Other limitations of the current law include the exclusion of large numbers of workers due to the size of their employer and/or due to the loss of an income during the guaranteed leave. The federal family and medical leave law leaves out 40% of workers (because employers with fewer than 50 workers are exempted under the law) and many covered workers cannot avail themselves of leave because the guaranteed leave is unpaid. Seventy-eight percent of workers who have not been able to take leave report that the reason is that they couldn't afford it.

So imperative aspects of FMLA expansion include 1) covering employers with fewer than 50 employees so that more workers are covered and 2) providing paid leave so that more workers can avail themselves of the leave guarantee.

The platform plank does not affirm either change. There is no mention of expanding coverage to reach more workers (by reducing the minimum size of covered firms). The plank does mention the problem that leave is unpaid, but seeks to address this issue by "working with states to make leave paid." While a few states do have good temporary disability programs that cover parental and personal/spousal medical leave situations, bucking responsibility of providing paid leave to the states is a sure way to ensure uneven, patchwork protections that prolong rather than resolve problems. And it is no way to ensure that the expanded categories of leave (eg, domestic violence) would be provided in a meaningful way: one of the biggest problems for DV survivors is the lack of personal financial resources to exit an abusive relationship; unless a survivor has access to an income she cannot avail herself of leave, and may not be able to leave her abuser.

There are many ways to accomplish the goal of paid family leave; passing the problem along to the states is not one of them. Paid family leave could be made a stipulation of federal contracts; the federal government could provide such leave to all public workers; and the unemployment insurance system could be modernized to cover unemployment and/or leave spells due to personal circumstances involving care for a child, care for oneself, or care for dependent adult family members.

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