Iowa families need more than platitudes, campaign rhetoric

Some Iowa lawmakers and elected officials gathered on the steps of the Capital this week to be disingenuous.

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The State Capitol Building in Des Moines. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

It’s difficult to find good news in this election cycle, but this past week offered an exception.

Both Democratic and Republican presidential nominees have rolled out their proposals for paid family medical leave. I’ll leave it to readers to research the ins-and-outs of the proposals by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The big news is the conversation about family medical leave is in the headlines again, and that’s due in large part to the number of women who have advocated on behalf of this issue.

It’s good that we are talking, because this is an issue that’s been simmering for years and something that could have been resolved years ago, if there was any actual political will to do so.

In the late 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in General Electric Co. vs Gilbert that the failure to cover pregnant women as part of disability benefits was not discriminatory. Congress responded two years later by enacting the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and amending Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, making it illegal to fire or refuse to hire employees due to pregnancy- and childbirth-related conditions.

A key limit of that law, which some employers quickly capitalized on, was that jobs didn’t have to be kept open during maternity leave. Enter the Family and Medical Leave Act, introduced in 1985 and twice passed by Congress, only to be vetoed by President George H.W. Bush.

FMLA sought to protect jobs during necessary family leaves, and despite its widespread support, it was not signed into law until 1993, when President Bill Clinton chose it as the first piece of legislation he would sign.

And while the law was a marked advancement, it wasn’t a complete victory. Employees can take time for family necessities, but there is no guarantee for wages during the time off. It only requires that jobs remain open for the employee’s anticipated return. That alone makes family leave an impossibility for many lower- and middle-income families. But the law narrows the window even further.

FMLA covers only those who have been employed at the same company for more than a year, and then only if they have worked for more than 1,250 hours at a location that has more than 50 employees with a certain geographic radius. About half of the workforce doesn’t meet those requirements, and isn’t afforded the protections.

In addition, the law has a narrow definition of what constitutes family, and isn’t designed to encompass those with routine ailments outside of the scope of what’s defined as a serious illness.

Most recently, in response of the inability of the federal government to address these shortcomings, states have begun to expand on FMLA’s protections, offering working families better assurances that they can balance their personal and professional lives. Paid-leave programs in some states now cover not only pregnancy and postnatal care, but encompass adoptions and the challenges of caring for aging parents.

California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and, just this year, New York have joined the ranks of states that have gone above and beyond basic federal protections, offering paid time off and other benefits that make the program more accessible to those who rely most heavily on regular paychecks. Did you notice that Iowa didn’t make the list? That’s because, for the most part, Iowa workers seeking family leave are handled under the federal provisions. Iowa Legal Aid offers a detailed breakdown of FMLA law in Iowa.

Individual employers can, of course, voluntarily choose to enhance family leave policies, but the state has not chosen to offer broad incentives for those actions.

Which brings us back to Iowa and what happened this week.

About 70 women, part of the Iowa Women for Trump Coalition, demonstrated in Des Moines. Among them were Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer and “other top Republican woman,” according to news accounts.

While the purpose of the gathering was political, a bid to shore up support among women for Trump’s nomination, it hinged on the roll out of the campaign’s family leave policies.

Upmeyer, who is serving her seventh term in the Iowa House, said voters are tired of the status quo.

Reynolds, a former county official and state lawmaker, said child care cost is holding back working families.

It was a political sideshow with which first-in-the-nation Iowans on either side of the aisle are very familiar, and typically brush aside except for a handful of photographs and news stories. The candidate has proposed something that locals view as a way to drum up in-state support. So people gather to highlight it and their support of the candidate.

Standard caucus- and election-year fare, right?

I’m afraid that when we write it off, when we allow our current and previous elected officials to stand so righteously on a campaign promotion without demanding any sort of proof they have in their own lengthy careers sought to push policy on the issues they’re now advocating, we the people are purposefully ignoring opportunities to move the conversation forward.

Iowa ranks as one of the nation’s worst states for family leave and child care protections. No matter how much our elected officials want us to focus on the political horserace, they need to answer what they’ve done to try and shift the status quo and state policy on their newfound pet issues.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on September 18, 2016. Photo credit: Stephen Mally/The Gazette