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Families Strengthened by Better Sick and Family Leave
Erica Barnett, 8 Oct 07
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Most of the US labor laws currently on the books were written more than 70 years ago, when most families were headed by a working father and a stay-at-home mother. Today 70 percent of all parents working outside the home, many lacking adequate, if any, sick or family leave. This is despite passage of the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), which gives workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to bond with a new child, take care of a sick or disabled relative, or deal with a personal illness.

How has the FMLA let these working parents down? Not everyone can afford to work without pay, and the FMLA guarantees unpaid leave only; and the FMLA only applies to people who have worked at least 12 consecutive months at a company that employees 50 workers or more. Those stipulations leave more than half the private-sector workforce unprotected, and as leaves are often taken in relation to family matters more particular to women -- childbirth and raising young children, as well as caring for sick parents -- working women probably experience a greater proportion of this hardship.

The poor state of sick leave and family leave in the United States has led to some awful unintended consequences:

  • According to a 2002 survey, nearly half of low-income working parents have been fired, suspended, denied a promotion, or received a warning for taking time off to meet family needs. Nationwide, only 11 percent of the nation's lowest-income workers are even authorized to take paid sick days to care for a child.
  • Newborns whose mothers return to work within 12 weeks after the child is born are less likely to receive regular medical check-ups, less likely to complete their required immunizations, and less likely to be breastfed than children whose mothers remain home for 12 weeks or longer.
  • Approximately 2.7 million employees were eligible for, and needed, family or medical leave in 1999-2000 but did not take leave because they couldn’t afford to go without pay.
  • Nationwide, just 15 percent of food-service workers, 18 percent of construction workers and 22 percent of security guards have paid sick days; only 20 percent of part-time workers do.
  • Parents who worked in highly inflexible workplaces (as defined by the availability of 11 specific work arrangements; a more comprehensive list is available at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's web site reported poorer mental health, lower productivity, and lower job satisfaction than those with flexible workplaces.

A new report by the MultiState Working Families Consortium, titled "Family Values at Work," makes a cogent and convincing case for new workplace rules in the United States.
The report suggests a number of practical solutions for the work/family crisis in the United States. Among their proposals:

  • Congress should pass legislation that guarantees a number of paid sick days to all workers, including part-time workers. Those sick days could be used for the worker herself, for routine medical appointments, or when a child or family member is sick.
  • Broaden the Family and Medical Leave Act to include employers with 25 or more workers, extending coverage to an additional 13 million workers nationwide. Provide partial benefits to part-time workers, and give limited leave rights to workers once they've been on the job for 90 days.
  • Create a "leave insurance" program to provide partial pay to workers who take family leave, funded through employee contributions. In California, a leave insurance program that requires partial pay for workers who take time off to care for a new baby, adopted child, or sick family member, has been in place since 2004.
  • Guarantee parents the right to take a few hours or days off each year to participate in parent-teacher conferences and other school events.

Surprisingly, given how difficult it has been to pass new family leave laws in the US, family leave is hardly a controversial concept; according to a survey done concurrently with the study, nearly 9 in 10 Americans favor paid sick leave, and three-quarters favor family leave insurance. Of 177 countries in the world, only four do not provide paid leave or a substantial payment to new parents: Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States. It's high time the US got off that list.

Image Credit: flickr/BookMama

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