Activist: "You have to choose between your life and livelihood"

President Biden is calling for legislation providing 12 weeks of paid family leave for all Americans as part of his American Families Plan proposal. Tameka Henry, a community activist who's lost income and jobs while taking time to take care of her family because work didn't offer paid leave. She joined CBSN to discuss her challenges and how a federal paid leave program could help workers in need.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: President Biden will take his new Jobs and Families plans on the road this week. The proposed legislation includes a comprehensive federal paid family and medical leave program. The Biden administration says the plan would cost $225 billion over 10 years. It is designed to provide Americans with 12 weeks of paid time off to cover a range of situations, things like the arrival of a new child, serious illness, or a loved one's military deployment.

If passed, workers could collect two thirds of their usual wages, capped at $4,000 a month. For more on this, I want to bring in Tameka Henry. She is a community activist and a founding member of Rise Up Nevada.

Tameka, the coronavirus pandemic has shown just how difficult it can be to take time off for an illness or a sick family member. And you have personally dealt with this kind of situation for 15 years. Can you tell us your story?

TAMEKA HENRY: Absolutely. And thank you for having me. My husband became disabled in 2006 with an illness called gastroparesis. It often lands him in the hospital. It's really painful, with stomach pains and vomiting. And it's really painful. Lands him in the hospital often. And so I would have to take off work without pay to care for him.

And so it has been such a challenge throughout the years not having a comprehensive paid leave plan that will not only protect my job, but offer a paycheck. I [INAUDIBLE] for him, and my children-- I have two children who have asthma as well. So it has been difficult throughout the years.

LANA ZAK: And, Tameka, you have lost income and jobs to care for your family because you didn't have access to paid family leave. Can you tell us how tough that was? And what would a paid leave mean for a family like yours?

TAMEKA HENRY: It's really tough, because it's often like starting over again. You finally have a job that you are secure in and you have the ability to care for your family, but then medical situations happen, like as ours, and you have to choose between your life and your livelihood. And it's simply not OK in this day and age.

So what this plan would mean for many Americans is having the stability-- having the option of taking care of your family and getting a paycheck at the same time. Having to make that decision time and time again, it gets very daunting and challenging.

And we do want to take care of our families. We do want to work. We do want to live the American dream, but it's unattainable for those who have family members who may have a medical issue that we don't have any control over.

LANA ZAK: A lot of people our age already are taking care of their kids. Add on top of that, in your case, you're taking care of your spouse. And then on top of all that, more older Americans are getting to the age where they may need extra care and adult children are increasingly finding themselves caring for their parents as well as their children. How does that squeeze affect families?

TAMEKA HENRY: Absolutely. That really touches-- really touches close to home. Because I have-- my grandfather passed away last year during the pandemic. And my uncle also passed away during the pandemic. My uncle was my grandfather's caretaker for years. And prior to that, he was my grandmother's caretaker.

He often would take off work to ensure that they were able to get their dialysis, or go to their treatments, or as my grandfather was aging, making sure that he made it to his doctor's appointments. And my uncle would take off work to care for him. And oftentimes, didn't get to take care of himself, didn't have the time to take care of himself.

And I lost them both last year in the midst of a pandemic. And it was really difficult. And even when I had my aunt, my grandmother had cancer, and my aunt would take off of work. And oftentimes without pay.

But it's so important to be there for your loved ones, like your grandparents, your parents. They took care of you when you were growing up. As it is important to be there to assist them in their care and to let them know that they're not in this alone.

But sometimes for many families, they don't get a paycheck when they take off work to care for a family member. A lot of people don't realize that it's much different than FMLA. The Paid Leave Act would be much different than FMLA. FMLA protects your job. A Paid Family Medical Leave Act would protect-- it would offer a payment or protect your paycheck so you can do both.

LANA ZAK: Tameka, your family has clearly had more than its fair share of struggles. And for people listening to your story, I'm sure that there are hearts opening to you right now. But the reality of the situation is that this proposal is going to see a lot of opposition in Congress, particularly to the price tag. What do you have to say to lawmakers who say that the country simply can't afford this?

TAMEKA HENRY: I know that we can afford this. I think that it's important that we often invest in our infrastructure in this nation. Our care infrastructure is just as important as the streets and bridges that they continue to rebuild. And it's just-- it's time for us to make bold public investments in our care infrastructure.

As Americans are returning back to work, it's so important that we continue to have them keep working by offering a comprehensive paid family medical leave and investments in our childcare system. These are things that are simply way overdue.

We've been talking about this for years, at least 30 years, at least. And I'm still talking with families who are having to make a decision of can I return to work if I have child care for my child, or do I just stay at home because I can't find affordable childcare? So there definitely is a way for us to pay for this. It has to be-- everybody has to pay their fair share.

The corporate tax rate he's proposing doesn't even get back to us for many years. And it's just important that the wealthy pay their share. FedEx didn't even pay a single dollar in federal income taxes. And I don't know how that-- that doesn't make sense to me. So there's definitely a way.

This bill has bipartisan support. And many just-- they need to listen to their constituents. We needed this. We needed this prior to a pandemic. And we definitely need it now.

LANA ZAK: Tameka Henry, thank you for sharing your story with us.

TAMEKA HENRY: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me.