How Family Leave Laws Left Out Low-Income Workers

Recent media attention has focused on professional women who have "opted out" of the paid labor market to care for their children. By contrast, the media has paid less attention to low-income women who have been required to "opt in" to the workforce over the past 10 years as a result of the nation’s overhaul of the welfare system. As women’s overall workforce participation has increased, low-wage working women have become much less likely to have access to pregnancy and family leave than their professional counterparts. This article examines the historical and legal development of this disparity. Ann O’ Leary argues that an early and prolonged commitment to a model of strict equality in the development of Title VII, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act has left many low-wage workers without pregnancy and family leave. Further, Ms. O’ Leary demonstrates that Congress did not fully consider the interplay of pregnancy and family leave laws with the welfare system when it reformed in 1996. Now, as a result of welfare reform, the current gaps in leave coverage affect too many workers for policymakers to ignore. Ms. O’ Leary proposes several reforms to correct the inequities in leave protection facing low-wage working women.

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