By Shannon Derby
Originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Women’s Equality Day, Aug. 26, celebrates the anniversary of the day Congress stopped denying women the right to vote — a key moment in our history brought about by women organizing to demand equal rights under the law.
While the civil rights movement for women has achieved monumental gains since that first legal milestone, women still face disproportionate barriers in this country with unequal pay, workplace policies that disadvantage women and working families, and the burdens of heading a household without necessary workplace protections in place.
Across the nation, women like myself struggle to make a living. We struggle to care for and provide for our families. We risk job and income loss when faced with illness or the need for maternity leave.
When I was hired as a sign language interpreter for the Two Rivers Public School District, I had no idea that I would be bringing another baby into the world. I hadn’t even started my new job yet, and I knew I was going to have to take a leave of absence when my daughter was born. I didn’t really know what to do or how to tell my new employer.
Luckily, my employer was very kind and had me fill out the paperwork to utilize the Wisconsin Family and Medical Leave Act. I didn’t have any sick time to use because I was new and only part-time. I am thankful that I was able to have time to heal myself and bond with my daughter, but having something in place to provide some wage replacement during this crucial time in parenting would have been a lifesaver.
The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act is one proposal that would help bring the nation’s public policies in line with the needs of the 21st-century workforce and the rest of the world by creating a much-needed paid family and medical leave program that would allow people to care for themselves and their families without putting their economic security at risk.
The benefits of paid leave are vast: lower unemployment rates and greater job security, financial independence, improved health outcomes, economic growth and savings to businesses by reducing worker replacement costs. Paid family and medical leave strengthens families, protects public health and boosts the economy.
Too many people across the country still lack this crucial workplace policy. Today, only 12% of the U.S. workforce has paid family leave through their employers, and less than 40% has access to any kind of employer-provided, short-term disability insurance to cover serious illness. This is especially important for women, who make up more than two-thirds of family and informal caregivers.
Paid leave insurance programs have passed in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island and are being considered by working families, unions, businesses and policy-makers in a dozen other states. In California, employers report that the program has had either a positive or no noticeable effect on turnover, productivity, profitability and morale.
In Washington state, a paid leave program awaits funding. New York is the next state likely to pass a family leave insurance program. Vermont, Connecticut and New Hampshire each have approved a task force to explore the issue.
In Wisconsin, 9to5 and the statewide Keep Families First Coalition continue to make progress toward a policy that will make our state family and medical leave program more accessible and affordable. We’ve successfully defeated recent attempts to repeal this critical state protection for working families, and now we are moving forward.
On this Women’s Equality Day, we honor the work we have done and acknowledge how much further we have to go. 9to5 Wisconsin members will take action to make family and medical leave more accessible and affordable here in Wisconsin and nationwide. We’ll be joined by 9to5 members across the country speaking out for change.
9to5 is proud to part of a diverse and growing number of individuals, organizations and coalitions nationwide to generate even greater attention to — and progress on — the issues and policies that are of critical importance to the economic stability and success of women, families and the nation.
We are coming together on Women’s Equality Day and beyond to remind lawmakers and people across the country that we are women and families, and the issues we care about matter. We matter. #WEmatterallows all of us who care about these issues to link our efforts, raise awareness and come together in a new and powerful way to call for action and accountability.
Shannon Derby of Two Rivers is member of the 9to5 Wisconsin chapter.