05/08/2006 Mothers Day: How About a Family-Friendly Workplace?

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Monday, May 08, 2006

In Today's Dispatch:


How About a Family-Friendly Workplace for Mothers Day?

Want a good Mothers Day present?

How about making our workplaces more family-friendly, so that a sick child doesn't mean a crisis for a parent having to beg for time off?

Or, how about providing paid family leave so that a parent can actually afford to stay home with their kids when they're born or can take the time to care for a sick family member?

Short of enacting new laws by Sunday, you might buy Mom a copy of the Motherhood Manifesto, written by Kristin Rowe-Findbeiner and MoveOn founder Joan Blades, which details the unfriendly workplace facing parents today and what political leaders should be doing about it.

Here's the hard reality for most families: the last few decades have seen massive changes in the workplace but public policy has not kept up. Sixty-eight million women now work, including 73% of all mothers with children under 18, yet most workplaces are not designed to provide parents, mothers and fathers, with the flexibility they need to balance work and family.

The shame of the US is that for all our talk of valuing families, among nations the US workplace is almost uniquely hostile to motherhood: in a survey of countries around the world, the only countries which do not have some kind of government policy providing paid leave to new mothers are”¦ Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and the United States. Even as the US shares its lack of family-friendly policies with a handful of the smallest, poorest countries in the world, 84 other countries in the world provide at least 14 weeks of paid leave at full pay with other policies that make the workplace more friendly for parents.

But if the federal government in the United States has failed to act, the good news is that state leaders across the country are pushing forward with new policies to give parents the time to care for their families without sacrificing their jobs. This Dispatch will detail both the politics and the policy details of this new movement in the states for a more family-friendly workplace.

Good Policy, Good Politics

The question we should be asking is why more progressives haven't made fighting for a family-friendly workplace one of their headline issues?

The harsh fact is that the overall progressive message isn't reaching a lot of parents, especially married women. For example, white married working class women (meaning those without a four-year college degree) voted for Bush over Kerry by a margin of 31 points in 2004. As political analysts John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira write, the failure "to convince these women that their families’ aspirations for economic advancement would be best served by a progressive agenda indicates a serious weakness" with progressive strategy.

Yet fighting for a family-friendly workplace directly appeals to this group of married working families. One poll in Washington State found that 74% of state voters favored providing paid family leave for workers—with an even higher percentage of workers with children under 18 supporting the policy. Another poll in Connecticut found 83% of state residents supporting such a program. And when California enacted its paid family leave law (the only such program in the country right now), surveys found 85% approval—with even 77 percent of those who identified themselves as political conservatives in support. What is remarkable about family leave are the broad-based coalitions that support the policy, from medical professionals to labor unions to PTAs to advocates for the elderly.

The Business Case for a Family-Friendly Workplace

And even as some ideologically-rigid business lobbies have opposed family-friendly policies, many other business leaders have spoken out on why a more family-friendly workplace helps retain good workers and reduces the cost of turnover in the workplace. As Dolores Gohndrone, President of Hallmark Services, a statewide employment service in Washington State explained in testimony on behalf of a state family leave bill:

“Family leave insurance will save employers thousands of dollars. I get calls all the time from employers who have had an employee quit because of a family emergency. They hire temporaries from my agency, often for as long as the leave would be. They have the added expenses for recruitment, training, and lost productivity.”

Multiple studies have shown the benefits to business from making the workplace more family friendly. What family-friendly workplace legislation does is create a level playing field, where all employers have the same obligations to provide a minimum standard of benefits and therefore aren't placed at a competitive disadvantage compared to their competitors. And by reducing turnover, all businesses collectively benefit from a more productive workforce. As testimony by business owners around the country in support of family leave policies shows, more and more of the business community gets this point.

Paid Family Leave Campaigns in the States

In 2002, California pioneered the first paid family leave law in the country. Sponsored by State Senator Sheila Kuehl, the law built on an existing State Disability Insurance program, which already insured employees against lost wages due to sickness. The new law then also insured that parents could take six weeks of paid leave — at 55% of their regular pay -- after giving birth or adopting a child. The insurance was designed to cost workers less than $3 per month. There are two very useful studies on the strategy and the media message that helped the campaign succeed.

Twenty-six states have introduced paid family leave laws, with the four strongest current campaigns for paid leave including:

» New Jersey: Time to Care Coalition and A1518 sponsored by State Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver.

» New York: Paid Family Leave Coalition and A01301/S1501, sponsored by State Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and State Senator Thomas P. Morahan

» Massachusetts: S2626 sponsored by Senate President Robert Travaglini

» Washington State: Family Leave Coalition and HB1173/SB5069

New Jersey and New York have disability insurance programs similar to California's, so they are modeled on the California plan, while Massachusetts and Washington are creating new funds specifically for the proposed family leave program. All of these new campaigns are looking to provide both more weeks of paid coverage and a larger percentage of full pay for those using the benefit.

Paid Sick Days: A Basic Minimum Standard

Even where a state isn't ready to enact full paid family leave, there are campaigns to establish an even more basic family policy: allow employees a few Paid Sick Days off a year if they or their children get sick or need other kinds of care. This seems like such a basic right that 60% of Americans think it's already the law.

But it's not.

Private employers have the right to fire an employee if they miss any day of work for any reason (unless they are protected by a union collective bargaining agreement.) Many employers have established voluntary policies to provide sick days for their employees, but here's the bottom-line:

» Barely half (51%) of employers provide any paid sick days to their employees.

» Only one in three (30%) allow employees to take off work because of a sick child.

» So 70% of parents face losing income or even losing their job every time they stay home with a sick child.

95% of the public in polls think this is wrong. A minimum number of sick days should be guaranteed to every worker, much as we guarantee a minimum wage as well to every worker. And campaigns are moving forward to create that minimum standard in states across the country.

Madison, WI has a vibrant Healthy Families, Healthy City Campaign that is working to guarantee eight to nine sick days per year to all workers in the city, while in Massachusetts, Representative Anne Paulsen and Senators Patricia Jehlen and Steve Tolman, have sponsored SB 1130 and HB 3788, which would provide a minimum of 7 paid sick days per year for all workers.

A few states have enacted or are pursuing more limited but important versions of minimum paid sick days.

» The Maine Women's Lobby helped enact the Family Care Act in 2005 (LD 1044), sponsored by Senate President Beth Edmonds, which requires employers with twenty-five or more employees who do provide sick days to allow employees to use them for care of a sick child, spouse or parent. California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, Washington, and Wisconsin have similar laws.

» Georgia's Working Families Coalition is promoting the Time for Schools Act (HB 320) which would provide 8hrs/year of leave for working parents to attend their children's school-related events.

» Minnesota, Montana, and New Mexico have laws or pilot initiatives establishing At-Home Infant Care (AHIC) programs, which provide certain lower income working parents with paid leave for newborns or newly adopted children.


For additional details on what states are doing on these issues, the National Partnership for Women has created a useful state-by-state roundup of proposals and recent laws that help families from around the country Paid family leave and a minimum number of sick days are only the beginning of what is needed to help families balance work and family obligations. But they are a good place to start.




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We just can't get enough of Mississippi Haley Barbour. The man is a human train wreck -- incredibly painful to watch, but you just can't take your eyes off of him. His most recent expedition? Refusing to posthumously pardon an innocent black man, convicted under false pretenses in the early 60's. One independent expert says this may mark the first time that a Governor has refused to officially clear the name of a person the same Governor has declared innocent.

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Matt Singer
Editor, Stateside Dispatch