Keshet is a national organization that works for LGBTQ equality in Jewish life. The organization equips Jewish leaders with tools to build LGBTQ-affirming communities, creates spaces for queer Jewish teens to feel valued and develop their own leadership skills, and mobilizes the Jewish community to fight for LGBTQ justice. Keshet’s blog spotlights this work, as well as the voices of LGBTQ Jews, our families, and allies.
The D.C. Council recently passed a historic paid family and medical leave bill, on which our friends at Jews United For Justice (JUFJ) have been leading the charge for two years. The bill will cover all workers in D.C.’s private sector, enabling them to take paid leave in order to take care of serious medical issues for themselves or family members. We interviewed campaign manager Joanna Blotner about the path to the passing of the bill, and how it’s designed to be inclusive of LGBTQ families.
Could you tell me about your work in LGBTQ advocacy and your role as an ally? What is the connection between your involvement in the Jewish world and your LGBTQ activism?
I had gotten involved in LGBT activism primarily because of my friends and my family who are LGBT. One of my best friends from middle school came out to me the summer between our junior and senior year of college. He went to a Catholic school at the time, and I remember asking him what he was going to do when he went back to school, if he felt safe being out there. There was this very profound moment where he said, “I don’t know that I believe in God, but I believe that God gives us our friends for a reason.” That comment helped inspire me be an advocate for my friends; it really struck me how different my Jewish upbringing was from his experience in regard to LGBT acceptance in a religious setting. The president of my temple when I was in high school was an openly gay man, and I owe him a lot because he was someone who advocated for me to get a mentorship program scholarship from the Reform Jewish movement. The idea that people had to reconcile their faith and their identity was just kind of shocking and horrific to me. Coming back to college that year, I wanted LGBT students on my campus to feel like they had a space in the Jewish community for them to be both Jewish and queer. I helped to start an LGBT Jewish group during my senior year of college, which was actually called Keshet. I also was lucky enough to have one of my first jobs in D.C. be at the Human Rights Campaign in the Religion and Faith Program and that really shaped a lot of my activism and professional experience in D.C.
Why did JUFJ prioritize the family leave bill and why is it a Jewish issue?
Paid leave is something that has been on the radar of labor justice and women’s movements for a long time, and in large part this bill grew out of D.C.’s campaigns in 2008 and 2013 around paid sick day legislation. Longer term leave was a generally unmet need across the board in the District, making it both a social justice and core self-interest need for a lot of our members. Only 13% of workers had access to paid family leave, and no matter your income level, you or your family will need care at some point in your life. We were meeting a need in our community members’ lives, as well as helping to advance social and economic justice in D.C. at large. The lowest income workers are the ones who have the least amount of access to paid leave in their jobs–I think it’s only 4 or 5% depending on their income bracket. Additionally, our Jewish faith prioritizes family and caregiving. We are required to take care of the sick and the ill, to provide healthcare when someone can’t afford services, and we intentionally say prayers for people who are sick in our community during services. It’s the right thing to do— no one should have to lose their home or go into debt because they wanted to care for a sick loved one or welcome a new child.
Why is this campaign important to you personally?
My dad was seriously ill back in 2009 with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which left him with a temporary paralysis. I was scheduled to go to Maine to work on their marriage equality campaign. I ended up leaving my dad, in a hospital bed, when he couldn’t walk, not knowing if he was going to have permanent paralysis. I was too ashamed to tell my supervisors. Looking back on it, HRC didn’t really do family caregiving leave and having only worked a year, I didn’t have much accrued leave. If I had decided to stay and be with my dad in the hospital, I’m not sure where my money would have come from. I don’t regret going to Maine, and at the same time it’s something I’ll never really be able to forgive myself for; that I made the choice to leave my family like that. And these are the kinds of things that people go through every day. I had a job that would probably have understood had I had the courage to tell them. People who are working the stores in D.C. and cleaning the buildings, the folks who are the most marginalized in our society already in terms of their relationships with their employers, would never have the option to even consider staying with their family; they can’t afford to lose a job or paycheck over it. Those were the kinds of stories we heard all of the time throughout the campaign.
To what extent is this legislation unique in how expansively it defines family?
The thing that will be unique about the D.C. paid leave program is that it’s gender-equal or gender-neutral for parental leave, and however someone chooses to build their family they’re covered; if they’re having a child biologically, or if they’re adopting or fostering a child, they have equal access to that parental leave. We really tried to be intentional about the kinds of families that we have in D.C. About 10%, maybe more, of D.C.’s population is LGBT, and we have a lot of families who are inter-generational. Families are not just your typical mom-and-dad-married-for-their-whole-life situation, people have step parents, and domestic partners, and grandparents as primary guardians of children, and all of those situations need to be covered as well. That’s something that we were really proud of, at the end of the day, that we were able to get coverage that was going to be inclusive enough to work for the different kinds of families in D.C.
Are there any other ways in which the bill is LGBTQ inclusive?
We knew the council was going to write an exclusion clause for cosmetic surgery into the bill, and we were really clear with them that it should be well-understood that gender-confirmation surgery is not actually cosmetic surgery the way that some health plans would define it; it’s a necessary surgery that needs to be covered. We were in fact able to get an explicit clause in the bill that procedures related to transition care would be a qualifying health condition for leave. Although people tend to think of things like facial contouring surgery as cosmetic surgery, it’s actually medically necessary. D.C. already has strong non-discrimination clauses around health care coverage for trans people, so with this bill, D.C. is becoming all the more accessible and supportive as a city for our trans brothers and sisters and non-gendered people. In the future, this program will need to expand its definition of family to include chosen family as important relations for the LGBT community (and others, but we’re really proud to have the most inclusive bill in the country at the moment.
What message do you hope this bill sends to other states?
With policy, states tend to copy models that have already been done in other places, for better or for worse. We were trying to think proactively about how this bill could be used as a model in other states going forward. It’s incredibly important that we have a program that provides equal leave to men and women, and to adoptive, biological, and foster parents, in order to reflect how people build their families. All parents should be equally responsible for taking care of their children, and we also need to make sure that people are thinking proactively about how trans people can access the healthcare services they need. When policymakers look at which family and health condition definitions to copy for their state’s paid leave bill, we really do hope that they will look to D.C. as a kind of gold-standard model. In DC, we took, learned, and improved from California, which has had this program for a long time. Hopefully other states will similarly build off of what we’ve done here and do it even better.
What were the greatest challenges you faced in the campaign?
Interestingly, we saw some progressive arguments for paid leave used against us by the business lobby. Some claimed “this bill isn’t good enough for low-income people; they need to have access to benefits quicker, sooner, and with less bureaucracy than what this program provides.” And it’s very true, anything that can expedite access to services is incredibly important. But it also really ignores a fundamental truth about how low-wage workers are treated by their employers: that it’s really important to have a neutral third party to evaluate the claims and need for leave without a profit incentive. It really should not be at the discretion of someone’s individual manager to review their employee’s private health records and hold over them a request for a longer term paid leave. By and large, that manager will figure out ways to not cover or approve someone. That was our fear based on the experience that too many workers had had trying to use unpaid leave.
A paid leave program means that people do not have to make hard choices between continuing to earn a paycheck and providing care to their families. It allows you to take care of a new baby, a sick partner or spouse, or be by your parents’ side in their final moments, without having to worry about where your income is coming from. It’s hard to oppose such a commonsense, widely experienced issue. Although our opponents threw everything at us and at the Council, we were grateful that decency, inclusion, and fairness prevailed.
D.C.’s Universal Paid Leave Act is now before the D.C. Mayor to sign or veto. Lend your support to #PaidLeave4DC by tweeting @MayorBowser. And if you live in D.C., you can call or email the Mayor to make your support known. Denying D.C.’s LGBTQ families access paid family and medical leave would take the District in the wrong direction!