Illinois can continue as a leader on workplace rights. Let’s not miss our moment

Five days of paid leave will help working people deal with a minor illness like a cold or a flu. But it doesn’t account for longer-term needs, like bonding with a new child or caring for a sick parent.

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Illinois State Capitol.

Illinois State Capitol.

Taylor R. Avery/Sun-Times

In Illinois, we’re making great strides for workers.

Legislators recently passed a bill that provides up to five days of paid leave for all Illinois workers. The days can be used for any reason, including for an employee’s illness, to care for a sick family member or for medical appointments. The Paid Leave for All Workers Act will have a positive impact on people’s lives, and we look forward to Gov. J.B. Pritzker signing it into law.

But the bill was only a first step in leveling the playing field for working people in our state — mainly women and low-paid workers — who have not been afforded the same basic workplace rights as their peers. Five days of paid leave will help working people deal with a minor illness like a cold or a flu. But it doesn’t account for longer-term needs, like bonding with a new child or caring for a sick parent.

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Illinois needs to take that next step.

This month, we’re celebrating 30 years of the groundbreaking federal Family and Medical Leave Act. FMLA was a huge step forward for working families: For the first time, workers could take a leave of absence to care for a new child, for medical reasons or to care for a sick family member without fear of losing their jobs.

We championed the passage of FMLA and are proud of the many advances made to cover care needs since 1993, such as legislation to ensure paid sick time in Chicago and Cook County and reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers statewide.

But it’s not enough.

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Too many working people don’t qualify for FMLA, because they work for small employers, do not work enough hours or have not worked for their employer for long enough. Even more can’t afford to take unpaid time off work.

According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, nearly half the civilian workforce was not covered by FMLA in 2021. In Illinois, 62% of families can’t take the unpaid leave they need without risking their jobs or their economic security. And we know that women are disproportionately likely to be the caregivers in their families.

That’s why Women Employed is leading the push for paid family and medical leave in Illinois. As the leaders of the Illinois Time to Care Coalition, we are advocating for a paid family and medical leave law in Illinois that will provide all working people with a longer-term paid leave benefit.

Known as the Family & Medical Leave Insurance Act, the law would create a state-run insurance program that allows Illinois workers to use up to 26 weeks of paid, job-protected leave a year. The program would be funded by a small contribution — less than 1% of wages — from employers.

It will be a game-changer for thousands upon thousands of Illinois workers who have never had access to this benefit.

Under the proposed legislation, working people could use their paid, job-protected leave each year to welcome a new child, maintain a healthy pregnancy, care for themselves or a family member, address issues of domestic or sexual violence, deal with reasons related to military service, respond to a public health emergency or disaster, or address school or child care closures.

At some point, everyone will face an unforeseen circumstance that requires an extended period of time off work. But most working people in Illinois have no choice but to keep working through challenging times. They are left with no other options.

This has been the case for too long, and the pandemic made us acutely aware of the enormous caregiving burden placed on workers, especially women. The pandemic also exposed how inadequate the current system is for supporting those faced with choosing between caring for loved ones or earning a paycheck.

It’s time to change that for good.

Illinois can continue to be a national leader of workplace rights. Let’s not miss our moment. Let’s pass the Family & Medical Leave Insurance Act.

Sarah Labadie is the director of advocacy and policy for Women Employed.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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