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A Peaceful Revolution: Is the Nation Poised to Adopt Laws That Work for Working Families?

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We hear it all the time from working people: When will Congress do something that will improve day-to-day life for me and my family?

It's a pessimistic and dismissive sentiment, and one that shows that many people may be losing confidence in our democratic process. While some people may turn away out of distaste for the down-and-dirty nature of politics, many others do so because they don't see Congress taking action on the issues that matter most to them: the struggle to make ends meet and hold jobs while caring for their families.

Many people think lawmakers don't understand what life is like for workers who can't pay the rent and put food on the table in an era of stagnant wages and rapidly rising costs - who risk losing their jobs if they take a few days off to care for a sick child, or a few weeks off after giving birth - and who can't imagine the insecurity that comes with having zero savings in an uncertain job market.

Fifteen years ago, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was the first bill President Clinton signed into law. It was our nation's first major work/family victory and it set a new workplace standard by helping millions take time off to care for new babies or sick family members, or recover from serious illness, without losing their jobs and health insurance.

It was an enormous victory but, even at the time, leaders and advocates recognized that it was only a first step. There were holes in the law. First and foremost, the FMLA provides only unpaid leave, so people have to forfeit wages and rely on savings when they are on leave - an option not available to many. Further, two in five people can't take the unpaid leave the FMLA provides because they don't work for a covered employer or don't meet the eligibility definitions -- for example, because they haven't worked at their job for a full year, or they work too few hours per week. Others aren't helped because the law doesn't cover leave to care for siblings or domestic partners. We knew the FMLA wasn't a fully comprehensive bill, but hoped it would start a new era that would bring greater flexibility and many more family-friendly advances.

While the FMLA did, in fact, quickly become a cornerstone of workplace policy, the promise of a new era hasn't yet materialized - but that may be starting to change. A decade-and-a-half later, at long last, there are signs that state and federal lawmakers may be ready to break the impasse.

Slowly but surely, we are seeing progress at the state and local levels. California, Washington and New Jersey have now adopted paid family leave, and San Francisco and the District of Columbia have enacted paid sick days laws.

Leaders in Congress are starting to move a broader work and family agenda as well. Earlier this year, Congress expanded the FMLA for the first time ever by giving families of wounded servicemembers up to six months off to care for their sick relatives. The House of Representatives voted 402 to 9 last week to specify that the FMLA does cover flight attendants, tens of thousands of whom have not been able to benefit for all these years because of the unique way hours are calculated under the FMLA. And Congress may this year consider legislation to give federal employees up to four weeks of paid parental leave.

These are small steps, but together they add up to progress that is long overdue. It's a promising beginning, and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.

It's no surprise we would see progress in an election year, since poll after poll shows that these issues are hugely popular with the public. And with prices skyrocketing and the economy in serious trouble, the timing could not be better.

Now more than ever, we need a national, bipartisan work and family agenda. That will only happen if we voice support for the progress made to date, and remind lawmakers that it isn't enough. We need every elected official, at every level of government to join the work/family revolution by introducing, cosponsoring and voting YES on bills that will make our country more family-friendly - and every candidate for office to promise to do the same.

A Peaceful Revolution is a weekly blog about work/life satisfaction done in collaboration with MomsRising.org. Read a post by a leading thinker in the field every week.

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