Fighting for Moms: Behind the Scenes of Mothering Justice

Elected officials often talk about a certain special interest “agenda,” but one that seems to be overlooked, conveniently enough, is one that is central to growth and development of individuals and society as a whole: The Mamas’ Agenda.

That’s where Mothering Justice, a statewide leadership development and advocacy organization that empowers mothers to influence public policy, comes in.

Formed by activist Danielle Atkinson five years ago, the organization advocates for paid leave polices, wage issues, affordable child care and wage theft, as well as equal pay and lowering infant mortality. She said the idea came to her roughly 10 years ago when she was pregnant with her first child. She was working her dream job, she said, but she didn’t have paid leave, and her family couldn’t afford to take the up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave provided in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

“I was forced to come back to work before I was ready because we couldn’t afford FMLA,” Atkinson said.

And she found she wasn’t alone.

“I know this is not just an issue I dealt with. Not only is it deeply personal, it’s deeply universal. We all get sick; we all want to take care of our loved ones and do what’s best for our loved ones, and even though the rhetoric coming out of Lansing and D.C. is what’s best for businesses … it pains me to see people minimizing their personal needs.

“I want to shine a light on the fact that we need to be looking out for what are human needs. When humans are taken care of, we have a society that works,” she said.

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. Over the course of five years, she acknowledges the policies Mothering Justice advocates for have seen traction. When she first started this venture, she said, “It was hard to find a bill sponsor for earned sick time.”

Now, she said, “We have tons of sponsors.”

Legislative Democrats in the state House have introduced legislation that would give Michigan employees an hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work. It’s the latest iteration of a long-term project for Atkinson, who also served as the spokesperson of an unsuccessful ballot initiative advocating the same goal back in 2016.

Among those working on behalf of earned paid sick time is Rep. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), who joined a roundtable discussion with U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), Atkinson and other community members on Thursday to talk about those legislative efforts.

Dingell is a co-sponsor of HR 932, known as the Healthy Families Act, and Geiss is a co-sponsor of HB 4307 in the Michigan House.

“The time for earned paid sick time is long overdue,” Geiss said in a statement. “That’s why I’m proud to fight for this issue every day in Lansing. The stories I hear around my district show that working people believe that no one should have to choose between taking care of an illness or work.”

Dingell, in the statement by her office, added, “At some point, nearly everyone will need to take time off work to care for a new baby, recover from an illness, or care for a sick or aging family member. But today, 41 million people – 36 percent of the workforce – do not have a single paid sick day, and only 14 percent have access to paid leave through their employer.

“For these individuals, taking time off often means choosing between a paycheck and taking care of themselves or their family. No one should have to make that choice,” Dingell said.

Indeed, Atkinson said that in many instances, mothers, especially mothers of color, are the primary breadwinner and drivers of their family’s success.

“The story about women of color has never really been told out of fear it would jeopardize a lot of people being able to relate to these issues, so I wanted to make sure we were centering women of color and their stories, but also training them to be empowered for when it came to these [policy] issues and discussions,” Atkinson said of her organization.

The United States remains the only industrialized nation that does not mandate a minimum of paid sick leave, vacation leave or parental leave.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, if all workers had access to paid sick days, emergency room visits would decline by 1.3 million visits a year, saving $1.1 billion annually. More than half of those savings would be to public health insurance programs like Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson