When Sarah Brafman was a teaching assistant in Bogor, Indonesia, from 2012 to 2013, she learned many lessons about the importance of strong family ties, strong communities, and strong interpersonal relationships. These lessons have stayed with her. Now the national policy director of A Better Balance (ABB), a New York-based organization that works to create and strengthen local, state, and federal workplace protections, Brafman’s time in Bogor serves as a reminder that it is possible for government to support workers when they need paid time off to bond with a newborn, heal from an illness, or care for family members who need temporary help.
“Caretaking is intrinsic to Indonesian society,” Brafman told Eleanor J. Bader. “Seeing the way people cared for one another there was deeply transformational. I went to law school when I returned from Bogor with this in mind. I knew I wanted to help create a society where family, relationships, and caregiving are valued.”
Brafman and Bader spoke in late 2022—just before the groundbreaking Pump Act and Pregnant Women’s Fairness act were passed and signed—about ABB’s work to promote a saner work-life balance and win better workplace protections.
Eleanor J. Bader: In addition to your time in Indonesia, have Jewish values influenced your work in any way?
Sarah Brafman: I am very connected to Judaism through tikkun olam and want to do what I can to improve the world. I always look at what can be done to lift us all, but I also think it’s important to center the most marginalized communities, those people who face the most oppression, in whatever work we do. This is a Jewish value and it inspires me.
Two of my personal heroes are Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, and former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, both strong, justice-minded Jewish women.
EJB: Families in the US need better access to affordable healthcare, housing, nutritious food, and childcare. They also need decent-paying jobs and good schools for their kids. Are any legislative fixes in the offing?
SB: Many of these issues seem hard to bridge but I see glimmers of hope in the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA). The Act will strengthen protections for pregnant, postpartum, and lactating workers by providing an explicit right to reasonable accommodations so long as those accommodations don’t impose an undue hardship on employers. Thirty states and several cities already offer this protection but a federal law will guarantee that pregnant workers nationwide can access things like light duty, additional breaks, or time off to get prenatal care without risking their jobs. The bill has strong bipartisan support. It already passed the House and has enough Republican support in the Senate to override the filibuster, but it has not yet been scheduled for a vote. We are now fighting to ensure Senate Schumer prioritizes it for a vote before this Congress ends and time runs out. This is a hugely important economic and maternal health issue that Congress can and must get done.
EJB: Has a coalition formed to promote the PWFA?
SB: Yes. There’s currently a lot of momentum for passage. The civil rights community, labor unions, maternal health advocates, the faith community, and the business community are all immensely supportive of this legislation. Our focus at A Better Balance is on highlighting how this bill will advance protections for the most impacted communities–predominantly low-income people of color who disproportionately work in physically demanding industries. There is broad consensus that enough is enough. It’s past time to end pregnancy discrimination and support workers who need accommodations to stay healthy and working.
EJB: It often seems as if lawmakers favor a state-by-state patchwork over universal federal protections. Am I misreading this?
SB: Both state and federal protections are critical. On the one hand, states can be laboratories of change. On the other hand, when changes are successful on the state level it turns the country into a patchwork of haves and have-nots and illustrates how unjust it is to have protections in one state but not another. Entitlement to paid leave or sick time should not depend on the state you live in. State bills and federal bills are not mutually exclusive. We need to make sure that when protections start at the state level they don’t end there.
EJB: The failure of Build Back Better was an enormous disappointment. Speaking of piecemeal protections, do you think there can be progress in getting some elements of this bill passed?
SB: There has already been progress on transportation, infrastructure, and climate. But when it comes to initiatives to support working families, we’re still lagging. It’s devastating. All issues intersect, but we need to ring loud alarms about the lack of available and affordable childcare, the need for paid sick time and paid family and medical leave, and the provision of in-home care for older loved ones and people with disabilities. As advocates, we emphasize that all of these issues need attention and prioritization.
EJB: Is there a balance between strengthening existing laws or organizing to pass new protections?
SB: We have to do both. We have to ensure strong enforcement of laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Years after these protections became law, many workers still don’t know that they are entitled to unpaid leave or a workplace accommodation if they have a disability.
Of course, we also have to support efforts to expand workplace equity and rights. It’s not an either/or. We need to protect what we have and push the ball forward on a broader profamily, pro-worker agenda.
EJB: You mention that many workers still don’t know what they’re entitled to. What can organizers do to get the message out more effectively?
SB: Outreach and education are a huge part of our work and engaging with marginalized communities is imperative. Most folks don’t work at a job with a Human Resources department that sits down and explains rights and entitlements. We know that few people will read a 20-page manual or even a four-page leaflet. It can often be more effective for messages to run on social media. Even TikTok can get the word out. Videos are often more accessible than text and language–not just languages other than English but wording that takes literacy levels into account–can make a huge difference. We’re all often busy or stressed so the more easily accessible the material, the better.
EJB: Let’s switch topics…Has the progressive Jewish community been supportive of efforts to expand benefits and entitlements?
SB: Yes. In DC, for example, Jews United for Justice led the paid family and medical leave campaign. On a national level, organizations including the National Council of Jewish Women and Religious Action Center have been wonderfully outspoken on work-family issues, reproductive rights, and maternal justice. In fact, the progressive Jewish community has often been in the vanguard of these campaigns.
Furthermore, interfaith coalitions can be powerful, compelling, and moving when they speak to the moral imperative of advancing racial, gender, and economic equality.
EJB: How have you avoided becoming demoralized by the lack of progress on issues of racial, gender, and economic justice and the relentless right-wing push to roll back the gains of the past half-century?
SB: I’ve been doing this work for a long time and am humbled by the many women I’ve worked with who’ve experienced discrimination firsthand but have turned adversity into an opportunity to be leaders in fighting for equity. If they can go through hell and still have a positive outlook, still speak truth to power, so can I. These activists keep me going.
Image courtesy of A Better Balance