Real Family Values

The right has claimed the mantle of “family values” for far too long. When my Republican colleagues use the term they’re usually talking about things like opposition to contraception, denying a woman’s right to choose, opposition to gay rights, and support for abstinence-only education.

Family values: let’s talk about what those words mean.

When a mother can’t spend time with her newborn child during the first weeks and months of life, that is not a family value.

When a husband can’t get time off from work to care for his cancer-stricken wife, that is not a family value.

When a mother is forced to send her sick child to school because she can’t afford to stay home, that is not a family value.

When parents and children can’t spend any time on vacation together during the course of an entire year, that is not a family value.

In fact, these things are an attack on everything the family stands for.

When it comes to supporting real family values, the United States lags behind virtually every major country on earth. We are the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee its workers some form of paid family leave, paid sick leave or paid vacation time.

Or, to put that another way: Workers and families in every other major industrialized country in the world get a better deal than we do here in the United States.

That’s wrong. It’s a travesty. And it should be an embarrassment to anyone who claims to speak for family values in this country.

Time for parents and children

It’s an outrage that millions of women in this country are forced back to work after giving birth, simply because they don’t have the income to stay home with their newborn babies.

Virtually every psychologist who has studied this issue agrees that the first weeks and months of life are enormously important to a newborn’s emotional and intellectual development. It’s understood that mothers and fathers should spend this time bonding with the new person they have brought into the world.

The Family and Medical Leave Act we signed into law in 1993 is inadequate for the task. Today, according to the Department of Labor, nearly eight out of ten workers who are eligible to take time off under this law cannot do so because they can’t afford it. Even worse, 40 percent of American workers aren’t even eligible for this unpaid leave.

In my view, every worker in America should be guaranteed at least twelve weeks of paid family and medical leave. That’s why I am a proud cosponsor of the FAMILY Act, introduced by Senator Gillibrand, which does just that. Under this measure, every employee would receive twelve weeks of paid family and medical leave: to take care of a baby, to help a family member who has been diagnosed with cancer or another serious medical condition, or to care for themselves if they become seriously ill.

This would be funded through an insurance program, like Social Security. Workers would pay into it with every paycheck, at the price of roughly one cup of coffee per week. There is no reason not to pass this bill now.

Sick leave for all

We must also make sure that workers in this country have paid sick leave. It is insane that low-wage workers for companies like McDonald’s must work when they are sick just because they can’t afford to stay home.

That’s bad for the workers – and it’s also a public health issue.

The Healthy Families Act, introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, would fix that. It would guarantee seven days of paid sick leave per year for American workers. It would benefit 43 million Americans who don’t have access to paid sick leave today. It would also establish a minimum standard for employers who already do offer sick leave.

We need a vacation

Millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages. They are overworked, underpaid, and under enormous stress. Today 85 percent of working men and 66 percent of working women are working more than 40 hours a week. Millions of people are working incredible hours – some with two or three jobs – just trying to care for themselves and their families.

That is why I have introduced legislation which would require employers to provide at least 10 days of paid vacation per year. This is already done in almost every country in the world. My proposal would allow workers to take two weeks of paid leave each year – to rest and recuperate, travel, visit loved ones, or simply spend time at home bonding with their families.

Companies like Virgin Group and Netflix have adopted generous paid vacation policies aimed at boosting productivity and increasing worker loyalty. But nearly one in four workers gets no paid vacation time at all.

Studies show that nine out of every ten Americans report that their happiest memories come from vacations. Vacations have been shown to reduce stress, strengthen family relationships, increase productivity, and even prevent illness.

American workers are being denied a benefit that workers in every other advanced economy already enjoy. Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand … we are the only nation that doesn’t require employers to provide at least 10 days of paid vacation time.

There is no reason for that. Our country is every bit as prosperous as theirs – and it is prosperous because the men and women of this country work so hard.

I’m not asking for the most generous vacation policy in the world. This is nothing like what they get in France, Austria or Belgium. But I intend to push for a standard which befits a great nation.

There is no reason not to pass this bill. It would benefit workers while also helping employers, the economy, and society as a whole.

Real family values

Last place is no place for America. It is time to join the rest of the industrialized world and live up to our ideals by ensuring that every worker in this country has access to paid family leave, paid sick time and paid vacations – just like they do in every other wealthy country on the planet.

The next time you hear a politician talking about “family values,” you may want to ask whether they support measures which really help American families. These bills will help families spend more time together, in greater happiness and security.

Those are values every family can believe in.