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Family Values: The Fight for Paid Family and Medical Leave

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It’s a sad fact that in America, giving birth, having an operation, or caring for a sick family member is often extremely expensive and sometimes out of reach. That’s partly because America is one of only seven nations that does not guarantee paid family and medical leave – and it’s costing us heavily.

That’s not to say that paid leave is unheard of in America. In fact, several Democratic-led states are running their own successful paid leave programs – and the list is growing thanks to legislative majorities that the DLCC has helped build. These programs allow people to prioritize their health or the health of a loved one without fear of losing their jobs, but Republican-led states continue to block their implementation.

Democrats Make the Difference

Let’s back up: before 1993, there were no laws providing for family and medical leave. Democratic women had long raised their voices on the issue, and it started to gain traction in the early 1990s – only to be vetoed twice by a Republican president. That all changed in 1992 when an unprecedented number of Democratic women ran for and won elected office in what was popularly dubbed “The Year of the Woman.”

Just over a month into this new Congress, Democrats led the charge to pass the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. This law was groundbreaking for the time, and nearly 30 years later it continues to provide Americans with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But let’s get real here: working families can’t afford to go without a paycheck for that long, and that’s exactly why Democrats across all levels of government are fighting to secure paid leave.

Republicans Routinely Block Paid Leave

Republicans have made it clear that paid leave isn’t a priority for them, even though millions of Americans are estimated to have a need for leave that they are unable to afford. For many, this is a matter of life-or-death: in fact, 59 percent of cancer patients share that paid leave played a positive role in allowing them to complete treatment.

Somehow the party of “family values” doesn’t think it valuable to care for a sick family member or stay home with a newborn baby – even as Republican party officials and conservative Supreme Court justices increasingly move towards forcing people to carry to term. But state Democrats are achieving meaningful progress on this front despite extreme GOP opposition.

State Democrats are Getting it Done

Currently, 11 Democratic-led states and the District of Columbia guarantee or will soon guarantee paid leave. This is a fight happening right now, and with growing ranks of Democratic women in state chambers, the past five years have seen a surge of support for paid leave. In April 2022 alone, Maryland and Delaware became the latest states to enact paid leave programs, with Democrats in Maryland overriding their Republican governor to make it a reality.

But it’s not just progressives in deep blue states pushing for paid leave. Democratic legislators in ruby red states like Tennessee and Oklahoma have introduced bills to address this issue, but they are almost always overlooked by their Republican colleagues – even as they pass legislation forcing people to carry pregnancies to term against their will.

Democrats are working against all odds because they know the positive impact that paid leave would have for all workers – especially working mothers. Birth takes a tremendous toll on the body, and the best way to heal is at home. Indeed, paid leave reduces stress in mothers and even decreases mortality rates for infants and young children. The benefits of these programs cannot be overstated, and it’s a shame that state Republicans continue to ignore the evidence.

Moving Forward

The story of paid leave is the story of Democrats raising their voices and fighting like hell for what should have been guaranteed long ago. It’s long past time we take this fight to statehouses across the country – and state Democrats are ready to step up to the plate.

The DLCC Team is also stepping up to the plate. We’re Spotlighting Democrats in competitive, state-level races across the country – and we recently launched our Path to the Majority, a set of strategic investments to build progressive power in the states leading up to this year’s elections.

But with an energized Republican base and a Supreme Court that seems fixated on tearing down fundamental rights, we’re going to need your help to build that progressive power. Consider chipping in today to help elect state Democrats who will prioritize paid leave and stand up for working families across the country.