By: Sharon Bernstein and Andrea Paluso
Monday, February 6th was the 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and we at Family Forward have been reflecting on the importance of this day. The Family and Medical Leave Act was an important first step in acknowledging something working families have long known: Occasionally and throughout our lives, most of us will need time away from work to care for a loved one or to recover from illness. But the step we took as a nation 25 years ago wasn’t enough then, and certainly hasn’t kept pace with the changing needs of our workforce or our families.
First and foremost, family leave must be paid. At the moments in life when people need family leave most, they are usually least equipped to deal with periods without pay. And 25 years later, it’s time for us to take this important leap forward.
For us at Family Forward, we have been actively working on a campaign for a statewide paid family and medical leave program since we started this organization almost 10 years ago. We found each other and other moms who were active in social change through a blog and online community called Activistas. We had all been impacted in different ways by discrimination or other issues when we became mothers. We found out that a paid family and medical leave bill – which would start a very small version of a program had been introduced by a legislator in the 2007 legislative session and there had been some organizations supporting it, but there was very little public involvement and the bill died.
We organized a group of moms to come together to talk about whether we could intervene to try to help actually pass something in 2009- and to push for a much more comprehensive policy than what had been introduced. That grassroots group became Parents for Paid Leave.
We began meeting with former Senator Diane Rosenbaum, who was the chief legislative sponsor on the previous paid family and medical leave bill. Through lots of organizing by meeting with moms in coffee shops around Oregon (with babies), connecting with national experts, and developing fact sheets and materials, we basically started our first campaign for paid family and medical leave.
Anyone that is familiar with starting a new campaign will know that you can plan for the best outcomes, but that despite any amount of planning, the journey is never smooth nor easy. We had some terrible experiences lobbying the issue. People – legislators and other advocates, didn’t take this group of moms seriously. We were told by legislators that the issue wasn’t that important, or that their “wife just stayed home with our kids because they were important to her”. But we persevered. We brought moms into the Capitol to meet face to face with their legislators to explain the impacts and to share their stories. We worked to organize a hearing with huge turnout from our organizational partners and activist moms. Ultimately, there wasn’t enough political will to move that version of the bill very far. As we progressed in our efforts to push for paid family and medical leave, opponents from the business community got more organized against us — and we recognized that the growing opposition assumed us to be a threat. No longer were we just a group of moms coming into the Capitol with babies in our arms demanding to be taken seriously – we were a growing force to be reckoned with.
We kept at it, and we got a lot of help along the way. Some people who worked in other organizations, or legislators we connected with, gave us advice. They helped us figure out how to do this work – how to run a campaign, how to organize around a specific issue, and how to build a long-lasting and sustainable movement for mothers and caregivers.
When we started this campaign for a statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program, there was no organization actively working on lifting up the experiences of mothers and caregivers and the discrimination and economic insecurity we face. That’s why we started Family Forward and that’s why we continue to organize, advocate, and mobilize with and for mothers and caregivers.