Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) had her first child while serving in the House of Representatives in 2014. Four years later, she became the first sitting senator to give birth while in office.
“It was not until I became a mom and was traveling back and forth to Illinois twice a week and trying to pump breast milk for my baby that I realized there were no lactation rooms I could use in the airport,” Duckworth told HuffPost. “I was told, ‘Well, you can plug your breast pump in next to where those guys are charging their phones.’”
The U.S. tends to lag behind other developed countries when it comes to progressive, family-friendly policies. One law that Duckworth says desperately needs some bolstering is the Family and Medical Leave Act, which turns 30 years old this year.
The FMLA assures workers can take protected leave from their jobs for up to 12 weeks to care for a new child or a loved one who’s sick. Historic as it was at the time, the law came with some significant holes: Only unpaid time off is guaranteed, and millions of workers fall outside of the law’s protections because they work for small employers or don’t work enough hours.
Duckworth plans to reintroduce a bill in the Senate on Thursday that would add about 3 million additional workers to the FMLA’s coverage: education support professionals. These are school employees who are not teachers and typically work nine or 10 months a year, like cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers, administrative staff and paraeducators who assist teachers in the classroom.
While teachers have protections under the FMLA, many education support professionals are excluded because their schedules are part time and they don’t work 1,250 hours per year. Unless a local school district has negotiated a leave policy for these workers, they might be unable to take time off and still know they will have a job to come back to.
“These are your lunch ladies, these are your janitors, these are your bus drivers, and they don’t qualify because it’s hard for them to reach the minimum number of hours,” Duckworth said. “Everybody deserves to have access to the FMLA, and these education support professionals are absolutely integral to students and schools across America.”
Duckworth’s bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), would create a separate hours threshold for these workers. They would be able to qualify for unpaid leave so long as they worked 60% of the hours typically expected for their job over the course of a month. That way a cafeteria worker who might only work 15 hours a week would still have a job to come back to if they needed to stop working for a few weeks.
The main teachers unions — the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — are two of the biggest backers of Duckworth’s bill.
Joshua Webster, a school employee and leader of his union local in Madison, Wisconsin, said workers shouldn’t have to quit their jobs because they have to care for someone. He said an assistant cook in his school district recently lost his fiancee and is now looking after their two children. Because he didn’t qualify for family leave, the union helped negotiate a special arrangement with the district due to the tragic circumstances.
Webster said the worker is now on leave and has a job to come back to, but only because the school district was willing to compromise.
“It speaks volumes to what’s going on,” said Webster, whose union is part of the AFT. “He did not have the hours. He would have ended up quitting. His spot never would have been held.”
The National Partnership for Women and Families, a group that advocates for robust leave policies, estimates that more than 40% of U.S. workers do not qualify for unpaid leave under the FMLA. Of those who do take leave under the law, roughly half step away from work due to their own health issues, according to Labor Department data. The leave is typically short: More than three-quarters of workers take two months or less.
“These are your lunch ladies, these are your janitors, these are your bus drivers, and they don’t qualify.”
– Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)
Duckworth said expanding protections to school support workers is not only morally right but makes for smart public policy, considering school staffing shortages. School districts have struggled to hang on to bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other employees as COVID-19 took a toll on the workforce and the labor market tightened.
In a federal survey released last year, 60% of U.S. principals said they were having a hard time filling non-teaching positions at their schools.
“You see where folks were not able to take time or have access to FMLA to take care of a loved one during the pandemic,” Duckworth said. “Consequently, many of these workers have quit to go find other jobs where they could qualify for it, or they made the tough decision of stopping work. And we don’t want to lose that workforce.”
Duckworth’s bill did not make it out of committee last time. Neither did a companion bill introduced by Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) in the House.
Democrats haven’t had much success pursuing more aggressive reforms to the FMLA, either. While controlled by Democrats, the House passed a bill to create a paid leave program funded through a corporate minimum tax and administered through the Social Security Administration. That bill died in the Senate, however. Now that Republicans control the House, it’s unlikely any such legislation will go anywhere for the time being.
But there have been some glimmers of hope for more modest legislation aimed at working parents. In the omnibus bill passed late last year, Republicans joined with Democrats to include two significant provisions: one that guarantees basic workplace accommodations for pregnant employees, and another that expands workplace protections for women who are breastfeeding. In a sign of how much support they had, the two measures passed, 73-24 and 92-5, respectively.
Duckworth said the pandemic may have helped change some lawmakers’ perspectives on these issues.
“People are finally understanding the decisions people are having to make,” she said. “It became much more visible, people having to choose between going to work sick and keeping a paycheck, or in many of these cases just dropping out of the workforce.”
According to Duckworth, making sure a school bus driver can take leave without losing their job shouldn’t be such a heavy lift.
“It’s the bare minimum we should be providing,” she said.