Opinion: Unpaid Leave Program Places Heavy Burden on Minority Workforce

In this photo taken Nov. 23, 2009, Lisa Zilligen, 28, prepares lunch for her three children, Miles, 20 months, Olivia 6, left, and Danielle, 8, in her home in Chicago. Zilligen, a single mother and full time student at Loyola University has been getting food stamps for the past several months; sometimes the allotment runs out before the end of the month and the family ends up visiting a food pantry. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green) (National Journal)

Tuesday marked the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act — a landmark bill that was signed into law in 1993 to help balance work and life in American households. The law allows U.S. workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave so they can recover from a serious illness, provide care for an ill family member, or take care of a newborn child.

While this legislation was a huge step forward in recognizing the changing nature of American families, as well as the importance of job protection in workers' lives, only about 60 percent of the workforce qualifies for FMLA leave. Moreover, because the leave is unpaid, many Americans who are eligible simply cannot afford to take it. Indeed, nearly half of workers who qualify for this leave but do not take it say they are unable to for financial reasons, and two-thirds of those who do take leave report experiencing financial difficulties as a result.

Given that workers of color experience disproportionate rates of economic insecurity, it is no surprise that the financial burdens of an unpaid leave program would disadvantage them the most. Households led by women of color are more likely to be struggling financially, with 41 percent of African-American female-headed households and 44.5 percent of Latina-headed households living in poverty in 2010. Workers of color are also more likely to be ineligible for job-protected FMLA leave due to the law's job-tenure and employer-size requirements, despite the fact that American Time Use Survey data shows that workers of color are disproportionately more likely to need leave.

As more women become the primary breadwinners for their families, it is important to support policy changes that acknowledge the importance of both work and family responsibilities — particularly caregiving for elders and children, which has disproportionately been fulfilled by women in households of all races and ethnicities. It is especially important to realize, however, that while women with caregiving responsibilities seem to fare worse economically than women without these duties or their male counterparts, women of color with these responsibilities still fare even worse. For instance, while the typical median income of a white female-headed household with children was $29,560 in 2011, African-American female-headed households with children reported $21,728 and Latina-headed households with children reported $21,766 as their median annual income.

Why should women — or men, for that matter — have to choose between being productive members of our country's workforce and taking care of their own health or the health of their loved ones? We must remember that it is in our entire nation's best interest to make sure that our workers are able to do both and are not forced to make a false choice between taking unpaid leave or not being able to care for themselves or their families.

This economic insecurity is already having a negative impact on women's decisions to bear children. Research shows that our country's fertility rate has fallen during periods of economic decline, and the recent recession reveals similar trends across all racial and ethnic groups: The fertility rate for black women dropped from 2.5 births in 1990 to 2 births in 2010, while the Latina fertility rate dropped from 3 births to 2.4 births over the same time period. While there are many factors that go into a woman's decision to have a child, economic security cannot be underestimated.

If this decline in fertility rates continues in communities of color, it will affect the future of the United States — particularly our future workforce, which research shows increasingly relies on diversity to remain competitive in a global economy. The United States remains the only industrialized nation that not only does not offer paid maternity leave to its workers, but also does not guarantee them the right to earned sick days. If we do not invest in our workers today — making sure to pay special attention to the disproportionate financial burdens that workers of color bear — by providing them with the basic assistance to do their jobs, stay healthy, and take care of their families, how do we expect our nation to succeed in the future?

The initial passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act 20 years ago was a good start toward acknowledging the changing needs of our nation's families, but hopefully President Obama in his second term will finish the job that former President Clinton started. Social Security Cares, for instance, is a proposal for a national paid family and medical leave insurance program that would cover the same life events as the Family and Medical Leave Act and would offer partial wage replacement funded through a small (less than 0.5 percent) increase in the payroll tax.

By making sure that more Americans don't have to choose between being a good worker and good family member, we can prove that as a nation we have what it takes to adapt to our changing demographics, changing households, and changing needs.

Julie Ajinkya is a Policy Analyst for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.