OPINION: If the president is serious about building back better, he needs to honor the sacrifices Black women have made by ensuring that paid family and medical leave remains in his economic plan.
With the 2020 presidential election, Black women once again saved America and the Democratic Party. Now it’s time for President Joe Biden to return our hard work and loyalty by stepping up and taking a bold stance on paid family and medical leave.
If Joe Biden is serious about building back better, it’s time to pay Black women what we’re due and honor the sacrifices we have made and continue to make every day. It’s time for paid family and medical leave.
Some senators have threatened to vote against Build Back Better, saying paid leave is too expensive. One detractor, in particular, lives on a well-appointed houseboat and drives a Maserati. Despite Joe Biden’s silence on the issue, the other Joe—Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia—has a lot to say about paid leave. That Joe says there are other ways to achieve paid leave for Americans that include the other party, despite the fact that only one member of the other party supports his ideas on paid leave.
That Joe says the Biden plan is too expensive. What that Joe does not say is that he is someone who will never have to decide whether or not to take time off to care for a loved one. That Joe will never be faced with financial devastation because he can’t work for an extended period. As a member of Congress, that Joe already has paid leave. But that Joe didn’t mobilize voters to help Biden win the 2020 election. He also never promised to support Biden’s ideas. We did.
And the authors of this editorial are Black women who have known the real cost of not having paid leave.
Josephine’s immigrant father had to leave this country and return to his native Malawi after a distinguished career as a college professor because he couldn’t afford the care he needed in the United States. During his final days, Josephine agonized with her sisters and mother over when they would take time off from work to be with him. He died in Malawi without them. They had to manage their grief, already heavy due to the pandemic, while trying to find open-air routes to their former home.
Erica’s fervent prayer is that she or her family never become seriously ill. When her father was dying in 2013, she chose to spend his last days with him. She didn’t have paid time off, so she sacrificed her income to make time for last conversations, hugs, kisses on the cheek, and journeys down memory lane with her father. She ultimately lost all that her father had worked for because she couldn’t afford to keep up with the bills.
So excuse us if we reject claims that paid leave is too expensive. The trauma caused by lack of paid leave is not free of financial and emotional cost. And having paid leave would help our economy recover. What’s the cost when someone goes to work when they really should be at home? The worker can be unproductive and, sometimes, a danger in the workplace. They can exacerbate a physical condition, causing them increased medical costs and more unpaid days off. What does it cost to lose a loved one due to lack of timely care? You can’t get these lost moments back.
The Build Back Better platform promised a more compassionate America by acknowledging that workers, like workers in every other wealthy nation, need universal paid leave. It promised 12 weeks of paid leave, protecting the livelihoods of Black women and other U.S. workers as we recover from COVID or take care of our elders and children. It was a policy that held the promise that we wouldn’t have to take to social media with GoFundMe campaigns if we got sick. It acknowledged that Black women in America are a part of the nation’s infrastructure. Our tax dollars would go to good use by supporting us when we needed it most.
Then a familiar pattern set in: the 12 weeks initially promised got carved down to four. We accepted that as a modest starting point. The paid leave measure disappeared altogether, then reappeared because of our demand. Now silence. The concerns of Black women are being treated as if they are optional. As if our support of Biden is optional.
Black women are done with being taken for granted—in the economy and in presidential politics. It’s time to support Black women and our families by pushing hard for paid leave for all. We are waiting to hear from you, Joe.
Josephine Kalipeni is Executive Director of Family Values @ Work in Washington, D.C., and a communications fellow at The Opportunity Agenda.
Erica Clemmons-Dean is National Organizing Director for United for Respect in Atlanta, Georgia and formerly worked at 9to5, where she oversaw its organizing efforts in all chapters. Her work fighting for economic and social justice began as a political organizer with the United Food & Commercial Workers.
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