The United States is the only advanced economy with no paid parental leave policy, no paid sick days. The cost of child care outstrips tuition for public universities in many states. Women still earn less than men, in many cases, for doing equal work. The minimum wage traps families in the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said it was time to change all that.
“Really,” he said. “It’s 2015. It’s time.”
And a poll of likely 2016 voters being released on Wednesday by the Make It Work campaign, an advocacy organization pushing to make these working family issues central to the 2016 campaign, found that Democratic, Independent and even Republican voters overwhelmingly agree.
Large majorities of voters of all persuasions said they are in favor of paid sick days, equal pay for equal work and affordable child and elder care, and 73 percent say the government has a responsibility to ensure employers treat employees fairly by providing them with such policies. About 70 percent said that workplace laws and policies are out of synch with the changing realities of modern families, and with the changing roles of men and women at work and at home.
And 81 percent – 94 percent Democrats, 80 percent of Independents and 65 percent of Republicans – agree that workplace rules to ensure equal pay, paid time off to care for family members and affordable child care “is good for our nation.”
“We’re at a tipping point, where it’s increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for a family to manage the challenges of work, putting food on the table and being there for the family,” said Vivien Labaton, with the Make it Work campaign. “So there’s very strong support for these issues. And it’s worth noting that they’re not partisan issues. There are significant majorities supporting these issues across party lines.”
The poll, conducted by the Democratic polling firm Lake Research Partners, surveyed a cross section of 800 likely 2016 voters in early January.
It is the first of a number of actions to raise awareness and build momentum that the group, a coalition of groups like MomsRising and Family Values @ Work. They are planning to keep legislative scorecards tracking votes by members of Congress on these issues, as well as ask all presidential candidates for their positions. “We launched this campaign to really put these issues front and center in the conversation,” said Tracy Sturdivent, one of the leaders. “We’re mobilizing voters to show elected officials just how strong the demand for change is.”
Jesske Eiklenborg, 27, a single mother, is one of the newly mobilized. Eiklenborg, who moved back to Sillwater, Minn., to closer to family, had been working in an Italian restaurant for five months. (She took six weeks of unpaid maternity leave when her daughter, Siddha, was born. And, unable to afford child care, her mother helps watch her daughter, now 14 months.)
On New Year’s Eve, Eiklenborg became ill with vomiting and diarrhea and called in sick. Although signs posted throughout the restaurant, which has no paid sick days policy, warned workers to stay away for 24 hours after vomiting, she was fired. By text.
“I’ve been looking for a job all month, but January is slow,” she said. Relatives are helping pay her bills for now. “I’m applying for unemployment. And cash assistance.”
Obama in his address noted that 43 million workers have no paid sick days. “Think about that,” he said. “And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home.”
Although previous polls have found voter support for these working family issues, David Mermin, with Lake Research Partners, said the new survey has found increased intensity.
“That intensity is what’s new,” he said. “People are saying these are fundamental values, not just policies, they support. So the debate is no longer whether we’re going to have a policy or not, but how do you actually get it done?”
But the poll showed support waned and voters were divided when asked if requiring employers to provide paid sick time was too burdensome. Those that disagreed had only a slight edge, 49 to 43. Which makes clear that voters may want and value these policies, but there’s real disagreement about how to implement them.
The poll asked voters to choose between two candidates:
Candidate A who “believes Family Comes First and this means supporting equal pay for equal work, making sure parents who work can have their young children in quality childcare, and ensuring every American can take time to recover from illness or care for families in emergencies without losing their paycheck.”
Candidate B who “believes families are best served when they can make their own decisions and this means having employers pay as they see fit, opposing government-backed childcare, and allowing each employer the freedom to create policies about sick days and family leave that best suits their particular situation.”
Candidate A won 53-29, with 71 percent of the Democratic vote. Republican voters, by a slim margin, 51 percent, chose Candidate B.
Republicans have long resisted family policies. Social conservatives have worried that supporting mothers at work would weaken the traditional breadwinner-homemaker family. Fiscal conservatives have opposed more government spending. And GOP philosophy favors small government and incentives and tax breaks over government mandates.
Still, the poll showed 60 percent of voters support action on the state level if Congress doesn’t move. Even Republicans favored such a move 47-36.
Congress hasn’t passed working family legislation since 1992 and the Family Medical Leave Act, FMLA, which itself took 10 years, two vetoes and bitter debate to pass. It allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for a family member. Forty percent of the workforce doesn’t qualify for it.
In the face of federal inaction, three states have passed paid family leave laws. A handful of states and municipalities, Washington among them, have passed paid sick days laws. And that includes states that voted to send Republicans to Congress in the November election.
Earlier in January, Obama signed a presidential memorandum giving federal workers six weeks of paid leave. He allocates more than $2 billion in his proposed budget to help states set up paid parental leave programs. He also signed a memorandum to give federal workers the right to request flexible schedules. In September, Obama awarded $500,000 in grants to the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Montana to study the feasibility of creating state paid leave programs. Rhode Island was given money to study the impact of theirs.
During Obama’s State of the Union address, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, tweeted that she planned to re-introduce a paid family leave bill that stalled and went nowhere in the previous Congress. Obama failed to even mention it at a high-profile Summit on Working Families in June.
So will the ground finally shift? Hillary Clinton said last June that passing paid parental leave seemed a political impossibility. Despite Obama giving the working family issues prime time airing, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, of Iowa, giving the GOP response, never once mentioned them. And perhaps now is a good time to note that Republican House Speaker John Boehner, seated implacably behind Obama during the speech Tuesday night, once said of FMLA that it was just “another example of yuppie empowerment.”
But Janet Gornick, a professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, who has studied family policy around the world, does see the conversation starting to change.
“While other countries have seen caring for children as an investment, the American notion has always been that children are the property of parents, like pets,” she said.
That’s left politicians and policymakers off the hook for creating an environment that supports working families, she said, and forced parents to scramble to find individual solutions.
“But now people, even the right, are talking about, if you go to work, and you’re playing by the rules, you shouldn’t lose your job just because you reproduced. I’m beginning to see some language that gives me hope.”