A quarter-century ago, Safiyyah A. Muhammad almost lost her job.
The, her oldest son threw up in a trash can in front of her boss.
“I had called three hours before my shift to say, ‘my son has a 100-degree fever and he’s vomiting.’ And they said ‘well if you aren’t coming in today then don’t come back at all,’” Muhammad, now 47, said in an interview.
Then a 22-year-old single mother, Muhammad decided to bring her son with her to the retail store where she’d just been threatened with termination for trying to stay home with the boy. Two bus rides and two hours later, she plopped him down behind the register in his school uniform and went to work.
“Right as the manager walked by,” she said, “he keeled over and threw up in the trash can. My manager said, ‘He can’t be here! You have to take him home.’ That’s what I’m trying to tell you!”
On Wednesday, Muhammad and 2,000 other working women like her rallied outside the Department of Labor’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to urge lawmakers to get serious about paid sick leave legislation.
Convened by the national Family Values @ Work organizing network, Wednesday’s demonstration is just one of dozens being staged for International Women’s Day. These “A Day Without a Woman” protests and strikes are a direct response to the misogynistic shadow President Donald Trump now casts across American politics.
“It’s a blessing that business owners understand the value of having healthy workers.”
FV@W’s rally is a bit more delicate, politically speaking, than many of the other protests and rallies Wednesday, such as the large demonstration against Trump’s devastating “global gag rule” on abortion services. Where many of the causes bound up in Wednesday’s gender strike face outright opposition from Trump and his allies, the new president has at least claimed to support the idea of paid leave laws for working families.
The Trump team’s lip service to paid leave “was a testament to the power of our movement. But the devil’s in the details, and the details we’ve seen so far from the administration are devilish,” FV@W head Ellen Bravo told ThinkProgress.
Trump’s version of paid family leave — which the president is entrusting to daughter Ivanka, much as he did during the campaign — would be too small and too restrictive to help most of the people who need it, she said, and would be paid for with money from the already underfunded unemployment insurance system.
“It’s not just that it doesn’t go far enough. It’s that it’s a step in the wrong direction,” Bravo said.
Paid sick and family leave laws have spread rapidly in the past few years, in part because they don’t fall into the same oppositional political polarization that so often leads conservatives to oppose anything they perceive as liberal in intent. Business owners are often among the most fervent advocates for the laws, out of the recognition that a healthy workforce is far more valuable than one worked to the edge of sanity and ill health.
Big business is far from perfect here — especially on family leave laws — but corporate sympathy to these ideas gives groups like FV@W a powerful conduit to conservative politicians. And enough cities and states have adopted paid sick days or paid family leave policies that economists can now confidently debunk apocalyptic right-wing predictions about their impact.
A tentative alliance with the business community and a mountain of real-world evidence in favor of the laws could could have made it tougher for Bravo, Muhammad, and everyone else at Wednesday’s rally to connect their cause with the broader liberal and feminist backlash against Trump. Antagonizing an impulsive misogynist with the power of the federal government at his fingers could threaten the trans-ideological power of the paid leave idea.
Bravo isn’t worried.
“Our coalitions are great places to build bridges,” she said. “In many places we have people who signed a petition for paid leave and then voted for Trump. Maybe they have been fed the story that immigrants are the reason they are losing their farm or their job, but our coalitions are a venue for breaking down that lie.”
“We have people who signed a petition for paid leave and then voted for Trump.”
Besides, she added, Trump’s broader agenda is so objectionable that FV@W “can’t look at things piecemeal. When you say you’re going after ‘bad dudes’ and in fact you arrest a dad who’s taking his kid to school, when you have a president who demonizes an entire group of people based on their religion or where they come from,” Bravo said, “we have to oppose that in the strongest possible way.”
All else equal, Wednesday’s rally participants trust that the bleedingly obvious economic logic of the paid leave idea will eventually steamroll any petty partisanship or stick-in-the-mud tribalism from Trump allies.
Muhammad has seen for herself how math can triumph over ideology. Back home in East Orange, New Jersey, city leaders passed a paid sick leave law in 2014 — about 20 years after the day her oldest son threw up in front of her boss.
“This was brought up by our city’s Chamber of Commerce. It’s a blessing that business owners understand the value of having healthy workers,” she said. “We really hope that this administration comes on board, because we can see they are driven by economics, by big business.”
Today, Muhammad’s oldest son is 30 years old with two kids of his own and a third on the way. She’s had four other kids — three sons on the autism spectrum, and a daughter who’s about to graduate high school — and married again.
Now, she works as a peer support counselor for special-needs caregivers like herself. She works part-time so she and her husband don’t have to spend big bucks on child care, on top of the expensive support and care her three younger sons need.
“I get so excited when I look at my pay stub and see those sick days being accumulated,” Muhammad said. “Now I can say, ‘You know what, I’m not feeling well, I need a sick day.’ And I can take one.”