By Thomas E. Perez
Forty years ago this weekend, my father died of a heart attack at the age of 52. I was 12, so as time goes by I remember less and less about him. But one vivid memory is of him always coming to my baseball games. And so when I had children, I promised myself that I would do the same – not just to be in the stands cheering for them, but on the sidelines coaching them.
Being labor secretary is a demanding job, but I still have the flexibility to coach youth sports, to help with homework, to be there for important rites of passage. My daughter’s high school graduation a few weeks ago conflicted with a Cabinet meeting, but there was never any doubt what I would do, or what President Obama wanted me to do.
If I were a low-wage worker, however, I might have been docked half a day’s pay to see Amalia get her diploma. That’s because we are one of the few countries on earth where paid family leave and paid sick days are not the law of the land. Earlier this week, the White House, the Labor Department and the Center for American Progress convened the first-of-its-kind White House Summit on Working Families to shine a spotlight on this issue and others that speak directly to the anxieties facing families of all kinds every day.
Oftentimes, it’s not just about missing a ballgame or a dance recital. The absence of paid leave threatens the jobs and undermines the economic security of millions of people across the country.
People like Anne from Minneapolis, who was fired from her factory job for missing six days over the course of the year because her children were sick.
People like Shelby, a hotel security officer from Denver, who had to care simultaneously for her daughter and aging father who both needed surgery. The Family and Medical Leave Act protected her job, but without pay. Taking off work for two and a half weeks took a huge financial toll. She had to pawn jewelry to make ends meet.
Congress has shown little inclination to act so far. But California, Rhode Island and New Jersey have already passed paid leave laws, with energetic grassroots campaigns in several more states.
The Labor Department wants to encourage that process. We’ve just announced new grants for states to conduct feasibility studies about the development or implementation of paid leave.
Thomas E. Perez, a native of Buffalo, is the U.S. Secretary of Labor.