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President Joe Biden promoting the American Jobs Plan in Norfolk, Virginia, on May 3. | Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The government’s definition of the family could be expanded in Biden’s American Families Plan. That’s really important.

President Joe Biden recently unveiled his American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion proposal that, among other things, would provide 12 weeks of paid leave to workers caring for new children or a sick family member. Perhaps as important, the proposal could also fundamentally change how the US government defines “family.”

The current law of the land is the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), from 1993, which requires large employers to allow workers to take leave for qualified family or medical reasons, but does not require that employees be paid during the time off. And not everyone can take advantage of it. When it comes to unpaid leave, the federal government’s current definition of who counts as family is tied pretty closely to the idea of a nuclear one: married partners and children under the age of 18. That leaves out a massive percentage of the population; just 18.4 percent of Americans live in traditional nuclear-family households.

Nine states and the District of Columbia, representing a combined third of the country’s population, have government programs that fund or will soon begin funding paid leave, and each uses a definition of family that goes beyond the FMLA. But leave is governed by a patchwork of state and individual business policies, leaving most families out.

Many Americans rely on extended or chosen family for care. For example, fewer than half of LGBTQ Americans surveyed in 2020 said they were most likely to rely on support from biological family when they are sick, according to a survey conducted by the progressive Center for American Progress.

The American Families Plan currently does not explicitly include chosen and extended family in its paid leave protections, but it does say access will be expanded. As Sherry Leiwant and Jared Make, the leaders of A Better Balance, a paid family leave and reduced-cost child care programs advocacy group, told Vox, it will be up to groups like theirs to push lawmakers to ensure inclusivity in the congressional version of the plan. Any bill that extends who can take leave to care for loved ones could have massive implications; reframing how the federal government conceives of family could help level the economic playing field. Rep. Richard Neal’s (D-MA) Building an Economy for Families Act, a far more detailed paid leave plan introduced at the end of April, is another example.

Leiwant and Make briefly spoke with Vox about Biden’s and Neal’s plans, and the effect a new definition of family would have. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gregory Svirnovskiy

Can you walk me through, in layman’s terms, how the federal government defines family? Does that manifest in the FMLA?

Sherry Leiwant

The federal government, in terms of the way they’ve defined sick leave for their own employees since the ’70s, really, when they began to think of family as other than just the nuclear family, has been very generous. It’s the federal government that coined the term “blood or affinity” as a relationship. And we’ve been using that, as Jared can attest, in all the states where we’ve written model sick leave laws or paid family leave laws. They are now just starting to also include those terms. So the federal government really was a leader here.

The FMLA, on the other hand, is extremely narrow. It only applies to spouses and parents, and only to children under 18, which has always been a thorn in my side, because my children are older. So, you know, that’s a very narrow definition.

Jared Make

As long as A Better Balance has been in existence, we’ve heard from workers that the definition of family under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act is incredibly narrow. And it doesn’t include not only core immediate family relationships — like adult children, domestic partners, siblings, grandparents, grandchildren — but also, you know, the broader chosen family that Sherry mentioned, that the federal government does recognize for its own workers.

So there’s a disconnect there, but it’s an area where we’ve seen states really lead the way, and it’s exciting to now see proposals and support federally for paid family and medical leave that will have an inclusive family definition.

Gregory Svirnovskiy

How have those narrow definitions in the FMLA impacted nontraditional families, particularly members of the LGBTQ community?

Jared Make

I think the unfortunate reality is it’s left most of those families out historically, and that continues to this day. You know, a major gap is that domestic partners, for example, are not covered. And this certainly before marriage equality was a complete exclusion of same-sex couples. Now that we have marriage equality, of course, married same-sex couples are covered, all spouses are. But the definition continues to leave out domestic partners.

Sherry Leiwant

Also the immigrant community. In many cases, you have people who are here and have left their most immediate family behind, but they are living with other family members who care for them and whom they care for. You have a lot of people living in extended families. And that can also have a disparate racial and ethnic impact. So it’s very important across the board.

Gregory Svirnovskiy

Now we have two new proposals for family leave in President Biden’s American Families Plan and in Rep. Richard Neal’s Building an Economy for Families Act. Do these plans go beyond current nuclear family definitions?

Sherry Leiwant

The Biden team is completely committed to a broad family definition, including the blood or affinity. And that is true also of Rep. Neal, who’s head of the Ways and Means Committee, which is now looking at language for a possible paid family medical leave program for the nation. He has put out a discussion draft that also has a broad and inclusive definition of family. In fact, it kind of follows the FMLA on everything on purposes and weeks and so forth. But there is a specific exception for family definition so that it’s broader. And it’s basically what we’ve been using, and what we’ve been talking about here.

Gregory Svirnovskiy

I’m glad you brought that up, because one of the things that’s really troubled me is I’ve scoured the internet, and haven’t been able to find any defined language on exactly who can qualify to take leave under the Biden plan, other than these broad allusions to it being more inclusive.

Sherry Leiwant

Well, I mean, I think what we always expected from the president was a very broad-strokes program that would then be defined more specifically in Congress.

This is what he’s sending, he’s not sending detailed legislation. I think working with the committee or the various committees is really important in terms of seeing what actually comes through. And I’m sure that the White House will be involved in some way in what it looks like.

Gregory Svirnovskiy

Can you tell me more about Rep. Neal’s proposal? Does it differ at all from Biden’s AFP?

Sherry Leiwant

It expands the family definition. So FMLA, it’s just for parents with young children under 18. The Neal proposal would expand that to a variety of named relatives, as well as those who have the equivalent of a family relationship through blood or affinity.

All the nuts and bolts are in there. I’m not sure that, you know, the stakeholders, such as the advocates or the business community or the disabled community will agree with what they’ve done. And there’ll be pushback, and there’ll be conversation, and I’m sure things will be changed. But there are massive amounts of detail in that document.

Gregory Svirnovskiy

Is there anything missing in the plans Biden or Neal are presenting to Congress right now? Will families that take paid leave be guaranteed their jobs on returning from leave, for instance?

Sherry Leiwant

The FMLA continues to be the only job protection statute or legal remedy. If you’re taking care of someone in your extended family, you could get benefits for that if Neal’s discussion draft were to pass, or Biden’s, but the FMLA continues to be the only job protection statute. We would have to expand the definition of family there.

The AFP is silent [on job protection], isn’t really addressing that issue. Neal’s proposal, also silent. There’s nothing in there. It doesn’t mean that the Biden proposal wouldn’t include something. But I don’t believe they said anything one way or the other.

Gregory Svirnovskiy

In the end, though, looking at Biden’s proposal and Rep. Neal’s plan for paid leave, can you speak to the symbolic importance of that for the American family?

Sherry Leiwant

Yes, it’s extremely important. I mean, I think it’s time. The time has long passed, really, for us to recognize that American families are not just mother, father, child, and parents. People rely on loved ones for their care. And many of our particular communities like the LGBT community, disability community, a lot of immigrant families, are extended families that care for each other, and we need to start recognizing that. This is a huge step in that direction.

Author: Gregory Svirnovskiy

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