To Celebrate MLK, Ensure Labor Protections Extend to Workers of Color

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Economic justice was a critical part of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lifelong pursuit of racial equity. King fought for the rights of all workers, growing the labor movement through his advocacy for worker protections. King decried the poverty wages of  African American workers and promoted fair compensation and working conditions as crucial to a just society.

While King was outspoken about raising labor standards, he  also recognized that people of color were often  excluded when standards improved. In a March 1966 speech, King noted that less than half of workers of color were covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which includes such protections as minimum wage and overtime. Unfortunately, this legacy of exclusion extends far beyond King’s life. It was only a few weeks ago that home care workers—who comprise the fastest growing occupation in our economy and are disproportionately women of color—became eligible for overtime and minimum wage protections as a result of new FLSA regulations.

Even when workers are covered by labor standards, their ability to benefit from protections widely varies. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the only federal law that helps workers meet both their work and family obligations, provides some workers with unpaid, job-protected leave to recover from serious illness, care for a sick family member, or care for a newly arrived child. This important legislation passed more than two decades ago, and millions have benefitted. However, a new report  reinforces existing evidence showing that many workers are not covered by the law. It also demonstrates that among those who are covered, many cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

Workers of color and their families are mostly likely to face this damaging exclusion.  A recent report from—a project of The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis—found that among working parents, 40 percent of Blacks, 42 percent of Asian or Pacific Islanders, 46 percent of Whites, and 50 percent of Hispanics are ineligible for FMLA leave. Disparities are greater for those in lower-wage jobs with few benefits; among working parents in low-quality jobs, more than half of Blacks and 60 percent of Hispanics are ineligible. Workers may be ineligible because they work for small firms or have not been with their employer for a sufficient length of time, among other exclusions.

But it’s not just these categorical exclusions that warrant our concern. Because FMLA leave is unpaid, many eligible workers can’t afford to take it because they do not earn a “family economic security wage.” While 54 percent of White working parents are eligible for FMLA, only 37 percent can afford to take it. And while half of Hispanic and 60 percent of Black working parents are eligible for FMLA, just 21 and 29 percent, respectively, can afford the leave. These grim figures point to the pressing need for paid leave. Fortunately a strong movement is pushing for local, state, and federal laws to guarantee access to paid sick days and paid family and medical leave insurance. Indeed, 19 jurisdictions have passed paid sick days laws, while three (California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) have pass paid family leave insurance laws.

Unfortunately, even when workers are eligible for paid and unpaid leave, many are unaware of their rights; nearly one-third  of eligible employees have not heard of FMLA. Just this week, a new poll found that only 36 percent of registered voters in California are aware of the state’s paid family leave program. What is particularly unsettling about this already meager number is that awareness has actually declined by seven points since it was last studied in 2011. The poll found that Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans are all less likely to know about the program, with Latino awareness dropping by 13 percent since 2011. Lower-income and less-educated Californians were also less likely to be aware of paid leave insurance.

These inequities in access to and awareness of leave could be seen as a slap in the face to King’s legacy. However, an announcement this week by the Obama Administration is a fitting tribute to King and his economic and racial equity values. The president announced strong support for the Healthy Families Act, the federal bill that would create a national paid sick days standard. He also detailed plans to improve federal workers’ ability to take paid leave when they welcome a new child or a foster child. And, Obama announced major investments in programs that would help states study, develop, and administer paid family and medical leave programs. The president’s announcement reinvigorates the fight for universal paid sick time and paid family and medical leave, which, if passed, would be critical to workers of color. Moreover, the national spotlight on these policies, generated by the Administration’s new push, should help raise awareness of existing policies; with awareness levels diminishing since 2011, this is a shot in the arm for paid leave.

As King knew more than half a century ago, the fights for racial and economic justice are inseparable. As advocates, policymakers, and communities seek out solutions to economic inequality, we must take on the racial inequities that perpetuate the problem. All workers need access to labor protections, including fair wages, paid leave, and fair schedules—and where they exist, these protections must be enforced fairly and equitably.