As the nation prepares to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and to celebrate Labor Day, I have been reflecting on how McCain’s decision to provide me paid leave and a flexible work schedule allowed me to stay in the workforce after the birth of my first child. He understood that the workforce is so much richer when it includes working mothers.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was enacted more than 25 years ago and grants employees at companies with more than 50 workers and all employees at public agencies up to 12 workweeks of parental, family or medical leave in a 12-month period. The statute does not include a requirement that such leave be paid time off, and it provides no means for raising the funds to cover the paid leave. For an employer who is more than likely a struggling small business, offering paid leave can be difficult or impossible financially.
Each Senate office sets its own leave policy, and though he voted for the FMLA, McCain didn’t have a written maternity-leave policy when I became pregnant in 2005. He jokingly told me to survey what Senate Democrats offered their staff and then cut it in half. After researching how senators on both sides of the aisle approached parental leave, I was aghast to find that many didn’t offer paid leave to mothers.
The senator and I wrote an office policy for new mothers in 2005 that provided six weeks of paid leave and an additional six unpaid. Other offices have done the same over time, with many senators now offering six to 12 weeks of paid leave. In fact, some Senate offices now offer more than 12 weeks of paid leave by managing their office budgets to cover the costs. This year, the House asked for a feasibility study on a House-wide paid leave policy for all new parents.
Whether you prefer one of these policies or none, just about anyone who manages an organization, large or small, will tell you that the greatest challenge is finding and keeping qualified employees. Providing this kind of bridge will benefit employers and employees alike.
McCain used to joke that I was a “frequent shopper” of the FMLA, but he was incredibly happy for me and my growing family. He once introduced me to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) by saying, “Lee is pregnant with her third child, and unlike you, Mitt, she doesn’t need more children for tax deductions.” He enjoyed working in the Senate as much as I did, and he enjoyed being a parent to his seven children just as much. He once told me that he would have enjoyed having more, as they were his “greatest accomplishments that didn’t require bipartisanship.”
The last time I visited with McCain, last year, he asked about my children and reminded me that my son was the same age, 13, as he was when he discovered his favorite book in his dad’s library: “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” He told me it was time for my son to read this coming-of-age novel and reminded me that, as the book asks, “For what are we born if not to aid one another?” Though the list of things he did for his country is long, McCain didn’t just aid me by providing paid leave and flexibility in returning to the workforce: He made it possible for me to aid others.
This Labor Day, as we celebrate American workers and remember an American hero, let’s work together to enact paid leave for parents to ensure that they can return to the workforce — one that includes and accommodates parents. Congress should act this year: As Ernest Hemingway wrote, and as working parents know, “There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow.”