Twenty-seven years ago, legislators passed significant unpaid leave legislation: the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The bill was a positive step forward in empowering women and families in the workforce.
Unfortunately, FMLA’s important protections are out of reach for some of the most vulnerable workers, and in particular do not extend to survivors of gender-based violence — a spectrum of violence that overwhelmingly impacts women and includes intimate partner violence, sexual assault, trafficking, and harassment. A comprehensive national paid family and medical leave program, which is nearly universally supported by women and is broadly supported by voters across party lines, would fill this gap in the law.
In the aftermath of abuse, survivors immediately need physical safety and financial independence from their abusers. But today, there is no guaranteed, job-protected program that allows them to take the necessary time off they need without jeopardizing their financial security. Comprehensive paid family leave would offer survivors of gender-based violence reprieve from having to make the impossible choice between their safety and their paycheck.
As the country’s largest network of domestic and sexual violence service providers, YWCA witnesses how crucial economic security is to the immediate safety and independence of survivors every day. In over 200 associations across the country, we help women and children find the support they need, when they need it. Whether it’s housing, counseling, or financial literacy, YWCA opens our doors to women seeking safer lives.
Through our work, we’ve seen firsthand how it is critical for survivors to be financially secure to obtain professional, economic, and physical independence from their abusers. Understandably, it becomes incredibly difficult for survivors to secure and retain work after experiencing trauma. According to the American Bar Association, up to half of all domestic violence and sexual assault survivors lose their jobs as a result of the violence. And the financial stakes are even higher for women of color, who experience lower wages, lower lifetime earnings, and other employment disparities.
There are other factors that compromise the financial wellbeing of survivors. Abusers can, and frequently do, actively interfere with or sabotage their victims’ employment. Abusers look for opportunities to prevent their victims from going to work — harassing them while they are at work, limiting their access to cash and transportation, and manipulating childcare arrangements. This combination of economic abuse and trauma, and lack of a paid-leave program, causes survivors of gender-based violence collectively to lose nearly eight million days of paid work each year.
The need for a national paid leave program extends beyond protections for gender-based violence survivors. While FMLA transformed workplaces when it was enacted over a quarter century ago, protections for today’s workforce lag behind. Nearly 40% of workers don’t qualify for FMLA. Even if workers are covered, many cannot afford to take unpaid leave without jeopardizing their family’s economic security. Without paid family and medical leave, missing a few days, or even just one day, of paid work can have significant economic consequences for most employees.
But the reality is that survivors of gender-based violence are even more vulnerable, and have unique needs that FMLA protections do not address. Many of the reasons that survivors have for taking time away from work aren’t covered. They are limited to using unpaid leave for medical treatment, to care for their own serious illness, or to care for a sick or injured family member, but cannot use it to seek legal or law enforcement protection from their abuser, to obtain assistance from a victim services provider, or to relocate or take steps to secure their existing home. Sadly, even if they are approved for FMLA, survivors often can’t afford to take the unpaid leave and receive a smaller paycheck.
Paid leave has broad bi-partisan support, with Democrats and Republicans acknowledging the urgent need for such a program. Currently, there is only one proposal on the table — the FAMILY Act — which is a comprehensive solution ensuring leave for the full array of needs faced by survivors, and the long-term economic security of all women, including low-wage workers and women of color.
Women in the U.S. are certainly ready for lawmakers to take action on this issue. When YWCA USA surveyed women on their priorities and concerns for 2020, nearly 89% of women said they consider creating a paid family and medical leave program a top legislative priority. Three-quarters or more of women of color even more intensely support a paid family and medical leave program, as compared to 65% of white women.We need to build on the progress that FMLA started, and immediately pass a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program like the one imagined under the FAMILY Act. No one should have to choose between their livelihood and the health and safety of themselves and their family. Let’s celebrate the anniversary of FMLA by advancing the economic, medical, and family support needs of survivors.
Alejandra Y. Castillo is the CEO of YWCA USA, the country’s oldest and largest women’s organization which currently serves over 2.3 million women, children, and family members in hundreds of communities.
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