Why don’t parental leave laws protect pregnant elected officials?

It’s a situation that Laura Narefsky, an attorney with the National Women’s Law Center, said “feels too familiar to many women working in this country.” In 2020, the challenges of being a working mom in politics were on full display as Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) brought her 4-week-old baby to the Capitol after she was told that maternity leave wasn’t an acceptable reason to vote by proxy.

“There is still a real skepticism around women’s ability to engage in the paid workforce and to manage their caregiving responsibilities at home,” Narefsky said. “We see this kind of persistent and latent discrimination against caregivers, largely stereotypes that we think should have fallen by the wayside in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, that are still plaguing women working in this country today.”

When it comes to a national paid family and medical leave law, Narefsky said that the United States is an outlier compared to similarly developed nations. The FMLA only grants unpaid leave, and even then many workers still fall through the cracks due to exemptions or financial insecurity that prevents them from taking leave in the first place. Only 13 states — including California — and Washington, D.C., have passed paid family and medical leave laws that try to fill the gaps left by the federal government. And in the Golden State, paid family leave only provides partial wages.

“That is a real sign of momentum and progress, but unfortunately there are still millions of workers left without guaranteed protections to take paid time off when they are dealing with their own medical needs, dealing with the military deployment of a spouse, or loved one or — as in the case here — welcoming a new child into their family,” Narefsky said.