Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) gave birth to her first child in 2014 while serving in the House of Representatives. Four years later, she became the first incumbent Senator to give birth to a child while in office.
“It wasn’t until I became a mom and was traveling back and forth to Illinois twice a week trying to pump breast milk for my baby that I realized there weren’t any breastfeeding rooms at the airport that I could use,” Duckworth told HuffPost. “I was told, ‘Well, you can plug your breast pump where these guys charge their phones.'”
The US tends to lag behind other developed countries when it comes to progressive, family-friendly policies. One piece of legislation that Duckworth says is in dire need of some backing is the Family and Medical Leave Act, which turns 30 this year.
The FMLA assures workers can take up to 12 weeks of protected leave from work to care for a new child or a sick loved one. As historic as it was then, the law had some significant loopholes: only unpaid time off is guaranteed, and millions of workers are not protected by the law because they work for small employers or don’t work enough hours.
Duckworth plans to bring another bill into the Senate on Thursday that would expand the FMLA’s scope to include about 3 million additional workers: education support professionals. These are school employees who are not teachers and typically work nine or 10 months a year, such as cafeteria workers, janitors, bus drivers, administrative staff, and paraeducators who support teachers in the classroom.
While teachers are protected under the FMLA, many educational support professionals are excluded because they have part-time schedules and do not work 1,250 hours a year. Unless a local school district has negotiated a vacation policy for these workers, they may not be able to take time off and still know they will have a job to return to.
“These are your lunch ladies, these are your janitors, these are your bus drivers, and they don’t qualify because it’s difficult for them to get the hour minimum,” Duckworth said. “Everyone deserves to have access to the FMLA, and these educational support professionals are absolutely essential to students and schools across America.”
The Duckworth bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), would create a separate hourly threshold for these workers. They could qualify for unpaid leave as long as they work 60% of the hours normally expected for their job over the course of a month. That way, a cafeteria worker who might only work 15 hours a week would still have a job to return to if they had to stop working for a few weeks.
The main teachers’ unions – the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers – are two of the biggest supporters of Duckworth’s bill.
Joshua Webster, a school worker and chairman of his local union in Madison, Wisconsin, said workers shouldn’t have to quit their jobs because they have someone to care for. He said an assistant cook in his school district recently lost his fiancée and is now taking care of their two children. Since he was not entitled to family leave, the union helped negotiate a special arrangement with the district over the tragic circumstances.
Webster said the worker is now on furlough and has a job to return to, but only because the school district is willing to compromise.
“It speaks volumes about what’s going on,” said Webster, whose union is part of the AFT. “He didn’t have the lessons. In the end he would have quit. His place would never have been held.”
That’s what the National Partnership for Women and Families appreciates, a group campaigning for a robust leave policy more than 40% of US workers are not entitled to unpaid leave under the FMLA. Of those who take furlough under the law, they are about a half-step away from work because of their own health issues, according to the Labor Department. Holidays are typically short: more than three-quarters of workers take two months or less.
“These are your lunch ladies, these are your janitors, these are your bus drivers, and they don’t qualify.”
– Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)
Duckworth said extending protections to school escorts is not only morally right, but provides smart public policy given schools’ understaffing. School districts have struggled to hold on to bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other staff as COVID-19 took a toll on the workforce and the job market tightened.
In a federal opinion poll published last year, 60% of US principals said they have a hard time filling non-teaching positions in their schools.
“You see where people haven’t been able to make time or have access to FMLA during the pandemic to care for a loved one,” Duckworth said. “Consequently, many of these workers have quit to look for other jobs they might qualify for, or have made the difficult decision to stop working. And we don’t want to lose this workforce.”
Duckworth’s bill failed to make it out of committee last time out. Nor did a companion bill introduced by Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) in the House of Representatives.
Democrats have not had much success with more aggressive reforms of the FMLA either. While controlled by Democrats, the House of Representatives passed legislation creating a paid leave program funded by a minimum corporate tax and administered by the Social Security Administration. However, this bill died in the Senate. Now that Republicans control the House of Representatives, such legislation is unlikely to go anywhere for the time being.
But there have been some glimmers of hope for more modest legislation aimed at working parents. In the omnibus bill passed late last year, Republicans and Democrats joined forces to include two important provisions: one that would guarantee basic workplace accommodations for pregnant workers and another that would expand job protections for breastfeeding women. As a sign of how much support they had, the two measures passed 73-24 and 92-5 respectively.
Duckworth said the pandemic may have helped change the way some lawmakers view these issues.
“People are finally understanding the choices people have to make,” she said. “It became much more visible that people had to choose between going to work sick and keeping their paycheck or, in many of those cases, just stepping out of the workforce.”
According to Duckworth, making sure a school bus driver can take a vacation without losing his job shouldn’t be that hard.
“That’s the bare minimum we should provide,” she said.