Opinion: Paid family and medical leave levels playing field for families of color

By Brenda Lawrence and Debra L. Ness

This week, all eyes are on Michigan as voters cast ballots in the Democratic presidential primary. With Detroit’s substantial African American voting bloc, it’s critical that candidates vying for the White House explain how they will advance racial justice, tackle persistent health and economic disparities, and strengthen the financial security of Black families here and across the country. 

One of the key economic issues impacting the well-being of Black families is the lack of access to paid family and medical leave. Today, only 19% of all workers have paid family leave through an employer. While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family and medical caregiving needs, FMLA leave is inaccessible for 65 percent of Black workers in Michigan. As a result, when a family welcomes a new child or faces a serious medical event, many workers will have to forfeit a paycheck to address their caregiving needs.

The financial consequences of not having paid leave are compounded for people of color, according to research compiled by the National Partnership for Women & Families. Systematic disparities — ranging from educational segregation to discriminatory lending —  have prevented most families of color from building generational wealth.

Further contributing to the economic disparity, Black, Latino and Native workers who work full time, year-round are, on average, paid less than white, non-Hispanic men and women. Due to systemic racism and discrimination, people of color are likely to be concentrated in low-wage and low-quality jobs that offer fewer protections and workplace supports. 

Barriers to accessing quality health care services and the chronic stress linked to racial and gender discrimination lead to poorer health for people of color. People of color are more prone to illnesses such as diabetes and asthma, and these illnesses occur at younger ages than they do in white people. These chronic conditions magnify the need for paid family and medical leave.

Women of color suffer most from the combination of these disparities. Eighty-four percent of Black mothers are breadwinners for their families — that means leaving the workforce is not an option. At the same time, Black women face significant wage disparities, typically being paid just 62 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. 

Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally where he was endorsed by progressive Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib at Cass Tech High School in Detroit on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, walks to the stage during a campaign rally Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Norfolk, Va.

As Detroit’s representative in Congress, and the president of an organization that advocates for equality for all women, we are committed to finding solutions to promote racial and gender equity. Last year, we were proud to support a provision that provides federal workers — roughly 1 in 5 of whom are women of color — with up to 12 weeks of paid leave to welcome a new child. But this isn’t enough. 

Addressing our paid leave crisis is a racial justice issue that requires a carefully designed and implemented federal policy solution. The Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act is the only paid leave proposal currently before Congress that addresses the needs of families of color. 

If presidential candidates want to demonstrate their support for Black families and all families of color, we urge them to support a comprehensive and inclusive policy like the FAMILY Act. Without it, families will continue to face impossible choices between work and care; businesses will continue to lose valuable talent; our economy will be stifled; and racial inequity will persist for decades to come. 

Brenda L. Lawrence, D-Southfield, represents Michigan's 14th Congressional District and is 2nd Vice Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues.

Debra L. Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, an organization that works to improve the lives of women and families by achieving equality for all women.