Opinion

Opinion | Elizabeth Warren

How to level the playing field for working families

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I graduated from law school nine months pregnant with my second baby — and 100 percent unemployable. In 1976, no law firm was going to offer a job to a woman in my “condition,” and even if it did, it was perfectly legal to fire me for taking time off when my son was born.

Then things began to change. Twenty-three years ago this month, the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, was signed into law. Today, most American workers can take unpaid time off to care for a family member or for themselves without worrying that their job won’t be there for them when they return.

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The FMLA was a huge step forward for working families, but let’s be honest: It’s not nearly enough. Allowing for unpaid time off after your dad has a stroke or you get hit by a car is the very least our country can do for families struck by a crisis. There’s much more to do:

First, raise wages. No one who works full-time should live in poverty — and that starts with raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. It also means passing equal-pay laws. The gender pay gap can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional wages over a lifetime of work for women doing the same jobs as their male colleagues. And finally, it means protecting workers’ right to organize. Unions help workers secure higher wages for their members, by almost 14 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute, but they also increase wages for all workers, union or not.

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Second, provide some additional insurance for workers so that taking a little time off to care for a newborn or a loved one doesn’t spell financial ruin — and that includes paid family and medical leave and paid sick days. OK, so we don’t get fired for getting sick or having babies, but according to the Department of Labor, only 12 percent of American private-sector workers get any paid family or medical leave. Without paid leave, too many people must choose between their family responsibilities and their paychecks.

Some workers cope by piecing together personal days, sick days, vacation days, or a short-term disability insurance policy — but 40 percent of all private-sector workers and 70 percent of low-wage workers don’t get even a single paid sick day. That needs to change.

Third, establish some basic rules of the road for work schedules. Half of low-wage workers have little or no say over when they work, and an estimated 20 to 30 percent work jobs where they can be called in to work at the last minute. Imagine trying to plan for anything — child-care, going back to school, or a taking a second job — without knowing when you’ll be working next week. Imagine planning a monthly budget when your work hours — and your paycheck — can fluctuate 70 percent in a single month. Fair and predictable work schedules can give families the certainty they need.

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Fourth, enforce the labor laws we already have on the books. Two-thirds of workers in low-wage industries experience wage violations. The amount of money recovered for victims of wage theft in 2012 alone was at least $933 million — almost three times greater than all the money stolen in robberies in the United States that year. And while we’re at it, let’s fix outdated and broken overtime rules. When the president’s new overtime regulations go into effect later this year, more than 13 million Americans will become eligible for overtime, creating an additional $1.5 billion in wages in the first year alone.

Finally, after a lifetime of hard work, retirement with dignity should be guaranteed to every American. This means expanding and protecting Social Security. For Americans with a pension, employers must make good on their promises. And the Department of Labor’s rule to prevent investment-adviser conflicts of interest will help make sure that the money workers save for retirement isn’t eaten away by fees and commissions paid to retirement investment advisers who put their own interests ahead of their customers.

We have a long way to go to level the playing field for working families and truly deliver on the promises of the FMLA. It won’t be easy. Getting protections for workers through Congress never is — the FMLA took almost 10 years to become law. But we can make change happen — and give working families a real opportunity to build a future for themselves and for their kids.

Elizabeth Warren is a US senator from Massachusetts.
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