When my friends and colleagues began working on the first Make the Breast Pump Not Suck hackathon in 2014 (http://www.kanarinka.com/project/mit-breast-pump-hackathon/), they were focused on the machine itself. The breast pump has evolved very little from its hospital origins, and it’s widely hated as loud, painful, hard to clean, ugly and awkward. The hackathon they organized did amazing work to design better breast pumps, but it also revealed a larger problem: It’s not just the breast pump that sucks — America’s family leave policy sucks, too.
The breast pump often becomes such a problem because mothers don’t have paid family leave and some need to get back to work immediately after giving birth. This puts parents in impossible positions — they want to do what’s right for their baby, but everything in American society is stacked to prevent them from caring for their child.
When the hackathon team reloaded and started working on the 2018 hackathon, we added a policy summit, focused on questions of paid family leave policy, a two-day discussion focused on issues of equitable design of policy and practical strategies for winning paid leave at federal, state or company by company levels.
What’s remarkable to me as a newcomer to this movement is the coherence of the ask. The panelists we heard from today were unified on what family leave should include:
At least 12 weeks of paid leave
Robust coverage — at least 2/3rds of salary, up to $4000 a month
Universality — the benefit applies to everyone in the business, with no carve out for small employers. The same benefits apply to freelancers and self-employed people
Portable, so people in the gig economy can take the benefit from one job to another
Comprehensive — Family leave includes not just parental leave, but govers a wide range of issues. We need to care not just for new babies, but for aging parents or sick children
Secure against retaliation — we need to overcome the danger that someone loses employment for taking family leave
There’s also widespread support for the idea that family medical leave needs to happen at the federal level, if only because we know that many states won’t opt to offer the benefit, and those states are ones whose citizens need this support the most. The differences are around tactics. Vicki Shabo of National Partnership for Women and Families is seeking support for the FAMILY act, Co-sponsored by Senator Gillibrand and Representative DeLaura. 32 bipartisan senators are now on board, as are 154 House members. The bill accomplishes most of the goals stated above and is funded through a small payroll tax on employees and employers (0.4%, split between the employer and employee) and administered through a new federal agency.
Sherry Leiwant of Better Balance pointed out that states are often the laboratories for policy experimentation where new ideas get worked through. She sees potential to build family leave around temporary disability insurance, which was instituted through payroll taxes in some states in the 1940s and 50s, but excluded pregnancy and childbirth until the late 1970s. But while TDIs give states a framework they could use to implement family leave, they aren’t universal, usually cutting out agricultural workers, seasonal workers and part time workers.
Some of the most exciting moves towards family leave policies have come from businesses. Erik Rettig of Small Business Majority points out that 85% of his member companies support paid family leave. Small businesses tend to be like families, he explains — they don’t want to lose employees that they have personal relationships with and have spent time training. But he notes that small businesses, individually, have little political power. As advocates, we should be targeting chambers of commerce, business leagues and other groups that can influence at scale.
Brianna Cayo Cotter of PL+US and Girshriela “Gigi” Green, OUR Walmart had the most powerful story about making change at scale through influencing corporations. Gigi explains that she and other Walmart associates began pushing the company for reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers as early as 2011. When she and colleagues learned that salaried managers were receiving 10 weeks paid maternity leave, and hourly associates were receiving none, she and colleagues started a petition campaign that ended up with more than 100,000 signatures.
Petitioning the company directly didn’t work. Gigi and Our Walmart, with support from PL+US, spoke in front of the Walmart shareholder meeting, addressing an audience of 15,000, demanding that the company implement fairer policies. Shortly after, Walmart agreed to offer equivalent benefits to full time associates, though they insisted that they made this decision without outside pressure.
The scale of this change is hard to overstate: Walmart is the largest employer of women in the world. The victory is far from complete. This isn’t true family leave, but maternity leave, and it doesn’t address part time workers who work full-time hours. But it’s an amazing step forward. Gigi chokes up talking about it, telling us that she’d worked with women whose children had died on Walmart properties because they had inadequate leave and support.
Brianna from PL+US believes that shareholders can be the most powerful voice for change within corporations. She’s begun working with a firm that invests hundreds of billions of dollars, and is using their leverage to push for change within the companies they support. “They’ve become very powerful activist voices, pushing for these rights within the companies they invest in.”
Today’s conversation pivots to tactics to reach these common goals. What campaigns, pressures and strategies will bring family leave to more Americans. Erik argues that we work best when we understand what businesses need, and how our asks are consistent with business priorities and processes. Brianna reminds us that businesses care about customers, investors and their board — pressure them and you can win. Gigi puts it simply: “I know what didn’t work. Going to them politely and asking for what was right didn’t work. It wasn’t until we petitioned and sooke out that change really happened.”
More to come, on the new strategies emerging from the policy summit, and new inventions from the hackathon.