Commentary, Opinion

Vermont women are in economic crisis; the FAMILY Act is a solution 

By Lt. Gov. Molly Gray

Each March we have the opportunity to celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month and to recognize the achievements of women in our communities and across the globe. Let us honor women this month by acting to address their economic wellbeing.

The president and vice president paid tribute to the 500,000 lives lost due to the coronavirus pandemic at a ceremony on Feb. 22. It was a stark reminder of the immense cost Americans have paid over the last year. In addition to these tragic deaths, the virus has had devastating effects on the country’s economy, impacting the lives of millions of Americans — especially working families and women.

Astonishingly, out of the 140,000 jobs that the U.S. economy lost in December, all were lost by women, particularly Black and Latina women. [Women lost 156,000 jobs overall during the month, while men gained 16,000 jobs, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center.]

In Vermont, the gender discrepancy is especially stark: In November, more than 73% of Vermonters seeking unemployment were women, the largest percentage in the U.S.

In Vermont and across the nation, women and especially women of color dominate industries hardest-hit by pandemic closures as well as jobs often lacking paid leave and the ability to work remotely. To top it off, from childcare to eldercare, women continue to undertake the lion’s share of caregiving responsibilities. Simply put, women have stepped up to care for our families and communities during this pandemic, at great economic loss.

It is true that the pandemic has been devastating, but working people in Vermont — especially women — have long been caught between their work and caregiving. Covid-19 has laid bare our country’s failure to support the economic well-being of working families and women, and it is past time we address this through effective legislation that is affordable for employers of all sizes.

The good news is there’s a national solution that would address Vermont’s paid family and medical leave crisis head-on: The Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. The federal FAMILY Act would provide Vermonters with 12 weeks of paid leave to recover from illness, care for a sick family member or recover from childbirth.

Here in Vermont, the FAMILY Act would reduce the number of working families facing serious economic turmoil due to the decision to take medical leave by a staggering 83%. Under current federal law, unpaid leave is inaccessible to 65% of Vermont families.

The FAMILY Act could also help our state’s persistent demographic crisis. As one of the oldest states in the nation, with more deaths than births, workforce recruitment and retention challenges and a shrinking tax base, Vermont cannot afford not to invest in the economic wellbeing of working families and women. Moreover, no Vermonter should have to choose between earning a paycheck and caring for family.

This March, I hope you will join me in urging Vermont’s Congressional delegation to work with Congress to pass the FAMILY Act— a common sense, compassionate solution to this crisis and a smart economic investment in women, working families and Vermont’s future.

Molly Gray is the 82nd lieutenant governor of Vermont and the fourth woman in the state’s history to hold the position.

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