When Cities and States Clash, Women and Families Suffer

photo - When Cities and States Clash, Women and Families Suffer
photo - When Cities and States Clash, Women and Families Suffer
Tens of thousands attended the Women's March on January 21, 2017 in Washington, D.C., to advocate for legislation and policies regarding women's rights and a number of other human rights issues, such as gender equality in the workplace. (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite ongoing efforts to create more inclusive, gender-equal workplaces, many states currently prevent cities from passing laws mandating employers provide paid leave.

This post was co-authored by Christiana McFarland and Brooks Rainwater.

Today, people around the globe are donning red, attending marches, and participating in walkouts in solidarity for International Women’s Day and “A Day Without a Woman.” With the social campaign #BeBoldForChange, organizers are calling on everyone to forge more inclusive, gender-equal workplaces. One way that cities are doing just that is through local paid leave policies.

The only problem? These efforts are being thwarted in nearly half the country. A new report from National League of Cities, City Rights in an Era of Preemption: A State-by-State Analysis, points to a troubling trend counteracting these local efforts – 19 states currently prevent cities from passing laws mandating employers provide paid leave. These limitations, also known as paid leave preemption laws, leave a great deal of families – and especially, women – with few options to care for themselves, a new child, or aging parents.

This trend is hardened by the fact that the federal government does not mandate paid family and medical leave at the national level. While a 1993 law, the Family Medical Leave Act, provides new parents with a guaranteed 12 weeks off after the birth of a child, it provides no remuneration, and is therefore only an option for those who can afford unpaid time off.

In the global context, most countries provide paid family and medical leave, including all countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), making the United States an extreme outlier.

As inequality rises and opportunities for those at the bottom of the income spectrum contract, support is needed to lift up rather than hold down our fellow Americans. This fact, tied together with the lack of national, state and private sector action to provide paid leave has spurred momentum forward in many cities to pass such laws.

What does paid leave encompass?

Paid leave, which includes both sick and family and medical leave, is a growing area of action for a number of cities. Paid sick leave laws specifically refer to the federal, state or local government mandating that employers provide sick time for employees that is paid either directly by the employer or through a social welfare benefit administered by the government.

Paid family and medical leave refers to the government providing monetary support to people caring for newborn children or aging parents, or addressing serious health issues. These types of laws typically provide anywhere from a percentage of full pay to 100 percent of a worker’s salary for set periods of time ranging from a few weeks to a year or more.

Which states prevent local action on paid leave?

In just the past couple of years, more than 20 municipalities have passed paid sick leave laws. From Tampa to Seattle to Washington, D.C., cities are working to empower local residents through guaranteed paid leave, which in turn creates better, healthier workforces.

However, this activity at the local level has prompted many state legislatures to stymy city control on the issue of paid leave, often on the grounds of limiting the “patchwork of regulations” for businesses operating throughout the state. But, it should be reiterated that this “patchwork” only exists, because states and the federal government have not taken action. Cities will always lead, but these preemptive measures mean that cities cannot tailor laws to meet local needs and values, and in the case of paid leave, serve to undermine the overall health and well-being of employees and limit economic growth.

graphic - preemption and paid leave

New methods of preemption are also beginning to crop up. For example, in the absence of a state law that explicitly prohibits local paid sick leave, Arizona has threatened to withhold revenues from the city of Tempe in order to deter the possible adoption of paid sick leave measures.

Although many cities and their states have antagonistic relationships in the realm of paid leave, some offer solid examples for how to work together to support outcomes for women, families and businesses. Statewide paid leave laws that allow cities to provide levels of support for employees that exceed the state’s minimum requirements is a best practice to both minimize the patchwork of regulations and maintain local control. For example, San Diego and San Francisco are among several California cities that have passed paid sick leave laws that go above and beyond state minimums.

When it comes to social policy, aggressive state action has limited the ability of city leaders to expand rights and provide opportunities to community members. Preemption that prevents cities from expanding rights, building stronger economies and promoting innovation can be counterproductive and even dangerous for cities, states and the country.

Our call for local control is a call to give cities the ability to adapt and to have the tools they need to create an inclusive society that works for everyone. As we all celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s continue to support and lift up the success of our cities on paid leave and fight back against states that would diminish the voice of people in cities. Paid leave ultimately should be a right not a choice. It is in our nation’s cities where our country’s leaders will continue to lead the way in moving the country forward – helping us all to create a more inclusive world.

About the authors:

Christiana K. McFarland is NLC’s Research Director. Follow Christy on Twitter at @ckmcfarland.

Brooks Rainwater is Senior Executive and Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter @BrooksRainwater.