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Bridging the Gap: Bringing the Benefits of Paid Family Leave to American Workers #FAMILYAct

by Lindsey Reichlin and Stephanie Román

ImageImageThis blog post was crossposted at MomsRising.

In its founding year, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) analyzed the costs to workers of not having unpaid leave for childbirth, personal health needs, or family caregiving in its inaugural publication, Unnecessary Losses: Costs to Americans of the Lack of Family and Medical Leave. IWPR’s research showed that, by not recognizing the  need for work-life balance, established policies not only failed to support workers and their families, but were costly to taxpayers.

Now 20 years old, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has become a cornerstone of U.S. employment law and human resource policy. But the law stopped short of ensuring true protection to workers: the FMLA only guarantees unpaid family and medical leave for employees, complicating the economic security puzzle for many workers in the United States.

Today, most U.S. employees still lack access to paid family leave. While the FMLA requires that employers provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected care leave for eligible workers, the lack of a paid parental leave statute means the United States is one of only four countries in the world  without publically sponsored paid maternity leave. Paid family leave can bring important benefits to both families and businesses. Yet, many parents with unpaid leave are forced to choose between financial stability and caring for their newborns.

In 2012, only 35 percent of U.S. employees had access to paid family leave to care for newborns, adopted children, or sick family members.[1] The lack of access is even more pronounced for lower income earners: only five percent of the lowest paid workers had this option. Workers with the least financial security, and therefore the least flexibility to go without pay, often do not have access to income when taking time off for caregiving duties. As a result, the burden of unpaid leave can be too much for many women to bear: almost two-thirds of those who needed but did not take unpaid family leave in 2012 were women.

Expanded access to paid leave would mean substantially increasing the amount of time parents take for caregiving. The impact of the Paid Family Leave program in California, available equally to women and men, gives insight into the difference a paid leave statute could make on a larger scale: the program has doubled the length of leave parents–especially low-income parents–take to stay home with their newborns. It has also significantly increased the number of fathers who take advantage of parental leave, even increasing the length of leave they choose to take.

The time parents spend with young children is crucial for their health and development. When that time is paid, the benefits are even greater. Studies show that paid family leave can dramatically decrease mortality rates for infants and children under age 5, a reduction that does not hold for leave that is unpaid or not job-protected. Paid family leave also increases the initiation and duration of breastfeeding, which can reduce children’s risk for serious illnesses, and improve their cognitive development.

Working women, in particular, stand to benefit from paid family leave. Paid leave could help narrow the persistent wage gap that continues to plague working women. Women who take paid maternity leave have seen an increase in wages and depend less on public assistance in the year after giving birth. Paid maternity leave also keeps women in the workforce, which increases the productivity of the labor force overall, and could potentially improve gender equality both in the home and at work.

Paid family leave has the potential to bring important economic benefits to the country as a whole, as well as to individual businesses. Providing paid leave to federal employees, for example, would save the government and taxpayers $50 million dollars per year in turnover costs by improving recruitment and retention of younger employees. Private industry also benefits from the reduction in costs related to recruiting, hiring, and training. Women in California, particularly those in low-wage jobs, were shown to be more likely to return to the same employer following paid maternity leave than those who did not have access to paid leave.

The myriad benefits of paid family leave are clear. And while a handful of states have passed policies that go beyond the federal requirements, there is much to be done to fill the gap left by FMLA and ensure all workers reap the many benefits of paid family leave. The FAMILY Act represents an important opportunity to do just that by instituting family leave insurance for workers. By allowing parents to care for their loved ones without fear of losing their jobs or incomes, the United States would better support the well-being of its workforce, while simultaneously realigning its priorities with the global norm: providing vital paid family leave to its workers.


[1] A variety of data sources measure paid leave coverage rates and some debate exists over which source provides the most accurate picture. This post uses the Department of Labor’s 2012 Family Medical Leave Act survey, which surveys workers and worksites on provision and access to paid leave for parental purposes.

 

Lindsey Reichlin is the Research & Program Coordinator at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Stephanie Román is the Mariam K. Chamberlain Fellow at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Author Finds Technology a Tool Not a Solution in Bridging Divide

By Leah Josephson

People often describe the “digital divide” in terms of high-income individuals’ having access to cutting-edge technology that helps them thrive socially and economically, while low-income individuals are left out. The divide is often cited as a significant source of economic inequality.

At a recent event at Busboys and Poets, Dr. Virginia Eubanks, author of Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age, critiqued this diagnosis as overly simplistic. The event was co-sponsored by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Teaching for Change, and DC Jobs with Justice.

Eubanks worked with a group of low-income women who are members of the YWCA community in Troy, NY, and asked the women what they needed. The main problem was not the digital divide. Instead, “more buses, less racism, and fairer employment” were the most popular calls for help.

Eubanks expected these women to have few technological skills. Instead, she found two-thirds of them already working in high-tech jobs, such as data entry or network administration. However, these jobs were low-paying, had few benefits, and were unstable. Technology was ubiquitous in their lives, but they could not use it to improve those lives.

Eubanks realized that simply providing technology and training is not enough to improve women’s lives. Rather, projects need to be designed to account for deeply ingrained racial and gender oppression.

Eubanks, informed by the belief that those closest to problems can best find solutions, worked closely with the women to identify their needs. They created a community technology lab for the YWCA, staffed and sustained by residents, as well as what Eubanks called an “Angie’s List for social services providers,” where the women could provide feedback on their experiences at local assistance agencies.

Even so, access to tech tools was not a high priority for the women. They were more concerned with the basic structural and cultural challenges that affected them on a daily basis—a lack of reliable transportation and workplace flexibility, coupled with racist attitudes.

Eubanks emphasized that technology in itself cannot cure these problems, but it can play a positive role. “We all have a stake in the creation of a more just information age,” she said.

Eubanks noted the creation of new, high-end jobs in technological development—touted by politicians including President Obama as the solution to our country’s economic woes—requires the support of more service industry positions in food service, hospitality, and retail. These lower-income jobs must be fair, provide benefits, and allow for work-life balance to meet the needs of workers.

IWPR has identified other basic benefits that can drastically improve the quality of workers’ lives in the shorter term. For women and their families, guaranteed paid maternity leave (the U.S. is one of only five countries worldwide that doesn’t require employers to provide it) and paid sick days could improve health, well-being, and economic stability.

Pay equity is another problem Eubanks identified. The women would often accept minimal compensation for high-tech jobs, hoping to gain the skills necessary for a higher-paid position. In a society where open discussion of salary is often taboo, these women had little opportunity to identify and express grievances, and only rarely advanced in the workplace.

“Technology is not a destination, it’s another site for struggle,” said Eubanks. In making technological advancements we should consider the quality of life of the workers who perform and enable it. Technology can contribute to a more just society, as long as the privileged consciously use it as a tool to support social justice, and not a ready-made engine of social progress.

Leah Josephson is the Communications Intern at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The FMLA: Old Enough to Vote, but with Room to Grow

On the occasion of its anniversary, IWPR takes the opportunity to outline the main characteristics of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and its impact over the past 18 years.

by Kevin Miller

Saturday, February 5 marks the 18th anniversary of the day that President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 into law. The law requires that employers with 50 or more employees provide 12 weeks of job-protected leave to any employee with one year of job tenure who has worked 1,250 hours within the past year. The law does not require employers to pay employees during this leave, though employees can substitute existing sources of paid leave such as sick days and vacation time in order to receive pay during FMLA leave.

 

Job-Protected Leave

In the 18 years that the FMLA has protected the right of (some) American workers to take job-protected leave, it has helped millions: mothers taking maternity leave and new child leave, fathers taking new child leave, and workers taking medical leave or leave to care for ill or injured family members (a child, spouse, or parent). It remains the only federal law that gives Americans a right to time off work, helping Americans balance work and family.

Gender Neutral

Though FMLA leave can be taken for maternity-disability reasons, it can also be taken to care for a new child regardless of whether that child was born to the employee, born to the employee’s spouse, adopted, or fostered. Nowhere in FMLA is access restricted by gender since the law applies equally to men and women.

Limited Eligibility

A 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Labor found that in 2005, 76.1 million workers were eligible for FMLA-protected leave, or 54 percent of the workforce. Of the 65.6 million ineligible workers, 47.3 million worked at establishments too small to be covered and 18.3 million lacked the job tenure or hours-in-job to be eligible.

Unpaid Leave

The United States is one of only five nations (along with Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea) whose workers lack a legal right to paid maternity leave. Australia, which previously guaranteed only unpaid leave, has introduced paid parental leave this year. Some American workers who are eligible to use FMLA leave are unable to afford taking unpaid time off from work: a 2000 survey commissioned by the Department of Labor found that among workers who said they needed FMLA leave but did not take it, 78 percent said that they could not afford to do so without pay.

Unequal Outcomes

Despite the gender neutral language of the FMLA, both the eligibility restrictions and the unpaid nature of the leave contribute to gender inequality. Men and women in the workforce are equally likely to work at a covered employer, but women with young children are 16 percent less likely to meet eligibility requirements than are men with young children. Among eligible workers with young children, however, women are more likely than men to take leave—76 percent compared to 45 percent. The unpaid nature of FMLA leave means that married couples may need to choose one parent to take leave while the other continues to work (and receive pay).

The average full-time female worker made 77 cents on the dollar compared to male workers in 2009, so it often makes financial sense for wives to take leave (or leave work entirely) while husbands remain on the job, a strategy that can leave women earning less for years after they eventually re-enter the labor force.

Room to Grow

Passage of the FMLA took eight years of hard work by advocates, researchers, and policymakers. During that time, provisions for paid leave were removed from the proposed legislation as a compromise, with the implicit promise that the law would be revisited and strengthened over time. The FMLA has been amended in recent years, but only to improve access to unpaid leave for airline employees, and military personnel and their families.

Successful efforts to provide paid leave have been limited to the five states with Temporary Disability Insurance systems (California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island), with California and New Jersey expanding their systems to include paid family leave. A recent study of California’s paid family leave system found that implementation of the system had minimal impact on employers and greatly expanded leave for workers in low-quality jobs.

 

The signing of the FMLA in 1993 was a watershed event for American workers, finally providing Americans a job-protected right to time off work. The FMLA has helped millions of Americans take leave from work to care for a new child or family member. However, millions of Americans are not covered by or eligible under the FMLA, and some who are eligible cannot afford to take unpaid time off work. Advocates and policymakers continue to work to expand access to leave that is both job-protected and paid, with the hope that one day Americans will no longer be forced to choose between their jobs and their families.

Kevin Miller is a Senior Research Associate with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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