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Real Family Values: Ellen Bravo on Work and Life

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School. Every Tuesday at 7:00 PM EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community and the private self (mind, body and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Ellen Bravo, Director of the Family Values @ Work Consortium about what individuals and employers can do to bring family values – paid sick days and family leave – to organizations to help working families.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: Last time I saw you was a week or so ago at the White House Summit for Working Families, where you had the honor of speaking directly after President Obama’s stirring speech.

Ellen Bravo: Ellen BravoI was so glad to be able to thank him and to bring the stories of the “experts” that we brought with us.  These are people who have found themselves fired because they wouldn’t let a special needs child stay home alone when the schools were closed because it was too cold or had their pay docked because they insisted on being with a kid with sickle cell anemia, or taking care of a dad who just had eye surgery. These are people who have taken that personal pain and hardship and are standing up together and trying to change policies so that what happened to them does not happen to them again and does not happen to others, either.

SF: Tell us about Family Values @ Work.  What do you do?

EB: Family Values @ Work is a network of coalitions in 21 states that work for policies like paid sick days, paid family leave, fairness for pregnant workers, fair schedules, policies that value families. It’s local groups that form broad and diverse local coalitions.  Restaurant owners and restaurant workers.  We have business partners, labor partners, people who care about kids and people who care about seniors, people who want to end poverty.  All of them come at this from the point of view that we know what works, when 40% of the population doesn’t earn a single paid sick day, when only 12% of workers get paid sick leave from their employers, we know that that’s bad for families. And it turns out it’s also bad for the economy and bad for businesses.  We are way behind the rest of the world. What we’re trying to do is modest, some might say meagre.  I think President Obama was shocked and horrified when he heard that we were one of only 3 countries in the world that don’t offer at least some form of paid leave.  Most employed women have to cobble together vacation days.  It’s a great joy to have a child, but it is not a vacation.

SF: You have been uniquely effective in advocating at the local, state and federal levels to help make our nation a more caring society. So what fuels your passion? How did you get into advocating for social change for families?

EB: My sons are in their 30s. I had two unpaid leaves. When the second one was born I hurt my back, the doctor said I needed to be flat on my back.  My husband could not take off.  We had no money.  I asked how I would do that with a toddler, too? He said, “Oh, just have your mother or your housekeeper take care of you.” We didn’t have a house much less a housekeeper and my mother worked full time. Then when the kids were 1 and 4 we moved to Milwaukee and one of us needed a job with health insurance.  So I took a job with the phone company which had health benefits and the person who hired me said, “You can’t be sick for five years” and she said, “I know you’re thinking how the hell am I going to do this.” I remember being surprised that she used that language because she was very prim and proper. She said, “Well you just have to.  We’re a public utility. We need you here every day.” And obviously what happened is that people came to work sick and they made each other sick and they stayed sick much longer.  And I thought this doesn’t make sense.  I was already an activist and I realized that I needed to actively address this issues; that family values cannot end at the workplace door. And I found the group 9 to 5 that was focused on low wage women and this was one of their key issues. We worked for and won family unpaid leave in Wisconsin and then in the nation. But we knew we needed to find a way to make it affordable.  We have to make sure that we don’t fire people for following doctor’s orders by staying home.

SF: And yet people still do live in fear of having to take time away from work to meet family responsibilities. But how did you win your first big victory?  Tell us about what you did in Wisconsin.  What did you have to do and what did you accomplish.

EB: The way we won was kids.  The governor had said he’s only sign a maternity leave bill and only a 30 day bill.  We knew we had to establish the principle of family leave; it’s not just new babies who need their parents and it’s not just mothers whom they need.  We put together a group of children each of whom had a reason why their family needed leave. One was a kid who’d had cancer when he was five; he was now nine and he remembered both his parents would be in the room with him when he got treatments.  One to hold him and one to tell him a story. He said the kid in the next bed didn’t have parents there during the day.  What he didn’t know then when he was five, but what he knew then was he was nine was that they would have lost their jobs and their health insurance if they had been with him.  There was a kid who had been adopted for the first time at the age of 12.  He was so happy to have a family but his new mom had to put the kids to bed at 8 PM because the adoption agency required that she be home during the day, but work wouldn’t give her leave so she had to work the nightshift. My younger son, he was seven at the time but when he was five he got hit by a car and had to stay overnight in the hospital for a concussion, which for him was two days.  But the idea that you would have to go through that without your parents there was unimaginable to him.

They all told their stories.  They met with the Secretary of Employment Relations for the State of Wisconsin. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry because they were very moving, but cute, as well. He said, we’re so used to meeting with lobbyists we sometimes forget about the people are impacted by the bills we pass. The Secretary asked if anyone had any questions, my little son, the youngest in the room, asked why wouldn’t the Governor sign this bill. The Secretary said, I promise that he will sign some version of the bill.  So, we quickly had a press conference and made this announcement, the kids all told their stories again.  The headline read: Children Lobbyists Win Lawmaker Hearts. The Governor said, it’s because of the kids that I’m signing this.

SF: So is this the modus operandi, to bring the voices of children in?  Or are there other strategies to influence policy-makers?

EB: There are many ways. So, California had won paid family leave in 2002.  We knew that there were other places that could do it, but they needed resources. We went to funders asking for seed money to create a new model where we work to raise money, but we share it among many groups, especially those working at the local and grassroots level. And our funders really liked this idea. So we started with eight states and now we’re in 21.  People can go to our web site www.familyvaluesatwork.org .  You can sign up on our web site and we’ll find ways to help you get involved in one of those states.

SF: So, what’s the business case for family leave, paid leave?

EB:  We’ve collected a growing body of evidence that shows that these policies are really beneficial. The majority of businesses now support these policies they find that it’s a non-event.  It cuts down on turnover costs. Advertising, screening, and training new hires is one of a businesses biggest expense.

SF: What have the states that have enacted enacted paid leave learned about what works or what doesn’t?

EB: For example Herb Greenberg of Caliper in NJ says for him this is a no-brainer because it helps him attract and retain people. He’s talking about the NJ Family Leave Insurance Fund. In the three states that have it, it’s all employee-paid. So it’s a cost savings for the employer because they don’t have to pay the person’s salary while they’re out, and they get them back. And they do what they want to do which is to help that employee be a good family member.

Same thing with paid sick days. Makini Howell was one of the people who spoke at the White House Summit.  She’s a restaurant owner in Seattle, and she said, why wouldn’t small businesses do this? You attract and keep people and you don’t have someone coming to work and making other people sick, and it’s good in the community.  Her business increased since she became known as a leader in the fight for paid sick leave.

SF:  It’s good for her brand.

EB: Makini Howell also said, “I want to be the kind of employer that I’d want to work for.”

SF: What are the hurdles? What are the barriers to adopting these policies?

EB: The biggest hurdle is lobbyists who claim to speak for the business community when they often do a disservice to employers by making it seem as though they’re mean-spirited or have a knew-jerk reaction to simple regulations. Because of the role of money in politics, they sort of threaten politicians, we’ll say that you’re anti-business if you support this policy. So it’s made a lot of politicians nervous.  The good thing is our coalition has really helped to break the “identity theft” by having business owners speak their stories of success.  They say that they already provide this for their employees but they want there to be a floor, some minimum standard and that’s the reason for a public policy.  They also say to other business owners, your workers are my customers so if they don’t get a paycheck or if they lose their job because they were being a good parent or taking care of themselves it’s bad for the economy as a whole. This is what small business owners tell us all the time, sales is the number one problem.  They need people to have money in their pockets.  That’s why business owners are supporting higher minimum wage as well.


Ellen Bravo directs the Family Values @ Work Consortium, a network of broad coalitions working for—and winning—policies such as paid sick days and family leave insurance.  She’s the author of Taking on the Big Boys, or Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business and the Nation.  To learn more about her work go to the Family Values @ Work web site www.familyvaluesatwork.orgfollow them on Twitter @FmlyValuesWork.

Join Work and Life next on July 29 at 7:00 PM ET on Sirius XM Channel 111 for conversations with Gretchen Spreitzer and Kathie Lingle.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

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