Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: Dear Sen. Manchin, help West Virginians keep their jobs when family members need their help

by Jim McKay and Danielle Atkinson

On Thanksgiving, families across West Virginia gathered with their loved ones. Thanksgiving epitomizes how much families care about one another. That is particularly true in our state, where families do whatever it takes to take care of each other.

Unfortunately, caring for a loved one can become an impossible choice between keeping your job or lending a badly needed hand. The U.S. lacks a national policy for paid family medical leave. The Build Back Better legislation that passed the House of Representatives provides a golden opportunity to allow workers to handle family needs without putting their jobs at risk. Sen. Manchin is in a position to ensure workers can maintain their income when forced to deal with issues at home. We appreciate his recent expression of support for paid leave for workers. Now we need him to act and make that a reality.

Paid family leave is not about extra time off — it’s about keeping working people gainfully employed when life-changing family events occur. Research shows paid family medical leave policies improve outcomes for children and families, increase worker productivity, boost employee morale and lower employee turnover. Four weeks of paid family medical leave would provide new working mothers the ability to keep their jobs after a child is born. It also increases lifetime earnings — and savings. States, communities and nations with more family-friendly policies boast higher workforce participation rates than places without them. It’s about helping people hang on to their jobs in today’s changing economy.

Fewer states would benefit more from helping folks stay employed than West Virginia, with the country’s seventh-highest child poverty rate, second lowest median household income and ninth highest infant mortality rate (an issue that disproportionately impacts Black and Indigenous people of color). Across the country, fewer than one in five private-sector workers receive paid time-off to care for a new child, deal with a severe illness or take care of a gravely ill family member. Low-wage workers, who enjoy fewer support options to begin with, are even worse off: Only 1 in 20 have access to paid leave. Given our aging population, the ability to take time off to care for sick and elderly family members at critical intervals is especially important.

Fortunately, people are taking action. The Build Back Better legislation includes four weeks of paid family medical leave, which is an urgent priority since workforce participation rates fell sharply during the pandemic — particularly for women, whose employment levels are back where they were in 1988.

That’s a big problem since women, specifically women of color, are often the breadwinners in their family. When demanding situations arise at home, West Virginians should be able to step up without falling behind. As someone who often talks about needs of working people, Sen. Manchin must understand that.

The bill also includes family-friendly policies that lower the costs of child care, expand pre-K programs and extend the child tax credit that helps hundreds of thousands of West Virginia families make ends meet. But the real test is whether folks can keep their paycheck and their jobs when family circumstances force them to take time off. Without that ability, more families will fall through the cracks.

America is a great nation, but too many miss out on its prosperity and opportunities. No one works harder than a Mountaineer — especially a working mom in West Virginia — but the odds are stacked against them, and the challenges are real.

Sen. Manchin, we urge you to act now on behalf of working Americans of all backgrounds and races — our friends, neighbors and family members — and help Congress strengthen our ability to work and build a solid future for our families.

Jim McKay is the director of Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia, a project of TEAM for WV Children. Danielle Atkinson is the executive director of Mothering Justice, a grassroots advocacy organization dedicated to empowering mothers in America, particularly Black and Indigenous people of color, to advocate for themselves and their communities. Amy Jo Hutchison, who heads Rattle The Windows, also contributed to this essay.