Every day, LGBT Americans face unexpected emergencies or life events requiring their care and attention: a worker comes down with the flu, a child is born, an adoption is finalized, a sick child is sent home from school, an elderly loved one is hospitalized. Many LGBT workers learn at these critical moments that their employers provide little or no time off and fail to recognize their families. This lack of support and recognition can have devastating consequences for LGBT working families. Due to high rates of poverty and health disparities in the LGBT community, LGBT workers urgently need laws that guarantee paid leave for health and family needs.
My organization, A Better Balance, regularly hears from workers who are forced to choose among their jobs, their health and their families. "I have a premature baby in a NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] in Buffalo," one parent wrote. "Both my partner and I have lost income, and for the time being our family is torn apart while I stay here with the baby and my partner is forced to choose work over parenting, lest we lose our home. Working families should not be punished with lost income for doing the responsible thing and caring for a sick child." American workers frequently struggle when they need time off to care for themselves or family members; 89 percent of private sector workers receive no paid family leave to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill loved one, and nearly 40 percent of private sector workers lack even a single paid sick day to address personal or family health needs.
As detailed in a new report, "Time for a Change: The Case for LGBT-Inclusive Workplace Leave Laws and Nondiscrimination Protections," the widespread lack of paid leave is especially problematic for LGBT workers and their families. More than 2 million American children live with LGBT parents, and a large percentage of LGBT workers provide care to ill and aging loved ones. Same-sex couples are also more likely to be poor than different-sex couples, with particularly high poverty rates among same-sex couples raising children. Therefore, LGBT working families are more likely to suffer financial catastrophe if they lose income -- or worse, a job -- during times of need.
In addition to providing economic security, paid leave laws help safeguard the health of LGBT workers and their families. Research reveals that LGBT Americans have an increased risk for some cancers, a high incidence of chronic conditions like diabetes, arthritis and HIV/AIDS, and a greater likelihood of delaying medical treatment. Due to these health disparities, it is essential that LGBT workers have the ability to see a doctor, recover from illness and care for sick loved ones.
Despite the LGBT community's particular need for workplace leave, LGBT workers and their families are often excluded from employer policies and the few laws that provide such protection. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the only federal law that provides leave to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill family member, is a key example. Although the FMLA has provided job protection and unpaid leave to millions of Americans, it fails to adequately protect LGBT workers and their families. An LGBT worker cannot take leave under the FMLA to care for a seriously ill same-sex spouse or partner, due to the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act and the FMLA's limited definition of family. Additionally, more than 40 percent of all Americans are ineligible for FMLA leave under the law's requirements regarding business size, hours worked and length of employment. And because the FMLA only guarantees unpaid leave, many eligible workers, especially low-wage workers who need every dollar to get by, cannot afford to take time off.
Fortunately, there is a growing national movement to pass paid leave laws. California and New Jersey have implemented family leave insurance programs that provide pay to workers who take leave to care for a new child or seriously ill loved one. San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Connecticut currently have laws guaranteeing that workers can earn paid sick time for personal or family health purposes. Two months ago, the city council of Portland, Ore., unanimously enacted a paid sick time law, and the city council of New York City overwhelmingly passed a bill last week that will extend paid sick time to nearly 1 million workers. All of these paid leave laws contain LGBT-inclusive definitions of "family." But in many cities and states, legislators and work-family advocates may not immediately recognize the LGBT community's need for paid leave.
As momentum for paid leave builds, it is crucial that the movement include LGBT voices. Workplace leave campaigns provide an opportunity to broaden family definitions in states and cities that deny legal recognition to same-sex couples, LGBT families and other caregiving relationships. Through paid leave campaigns, LGBT advocates can also raise awareness about LGBT economic justice issues and create alliances that will broaden support for other LGBT rights issues, such as the need for comprehensive employment nondiscrimination laws.
When illness strikes, or when a child is born or adopted, workers should not have to worry about losing a job or critical income. The LGBT community must join the rising call for paid leave laws and ensure that all workers have the support and time necessary to recover from illness and care for their loved ones.