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The American Work Place: Out of Sync with the American Family
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The American Work Place: Out of Sync with the American Family

Mother’s Day provides us one day a year to show our gratitude to the women who help keep our families safe and secure. While most Mother’s Day gifts center on cards and tokens of appreciation, the best gift our nation could give our moms are policies that make it easier for them to meet the dual demands of work and family.

Demands on mothers have been growing. Today, nearly 75 percent of mothers with children under 18 work for pay. In addition, children get sick, parents age and unexpected health emergencies arise just as they did in previous generations. But in today’s 24/7 work environment, there is rarely a full-time caregiver at home to focus exclusively on the family. Despite growing demands on working families, women and men are working longer hours than ever, often with fewer benefits and less flexibility. And families get the short end of the stick.

The situation is only getting worse. Poll after poll shows workers are more stressed than ever. Despite talk of family values, the current administration has exacerbated the problems working families face today. The Bush administration recommended overtime regulations that will force millions to work longer hours with less pay, repealed a regulation that would have made it easier for states to provide paid parental leave, and suggested cuts to a variety of programs today’s families desperately need – including after-school care and child care, among others.

Rather than set working families back, our leaders should embrace real policy solutions that help Americans care for themselves and their families. Take the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). More than 40 million Americans have taken advantage of the FMLA since its passage in 1993. As a result, many employees now can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new baby, a seriously ill family member or to recover from their own illness, without losing their job or health insurance. But, the FMLA does not cover all workers, and the leave is unpaid, forcing many people to make painful decisions about how to help their family and stay afloat financially. Among workers who needed FMLA leave but did not take it, more than 78 percent said they could not afford to miss a paycheck. And 9 percent of workers who took FMLA leave and received less than full pay while on leave ended up on public assistance. An estimated 300,000 family bankruptcies could be prevented each year if workers had access to paid family leave. The FMLA does not cover everyday health concerns such as picking up a feverish child from school or taking a parent who can no longer drive to a doctor’s appointment. Clearly, there is room for improvement.

The same goes for paid sick leave. Incredibly, almost half (47 percent) of private sector workers have no paid sick leave. Almost 49 percent of working mothers report that they do not get paid when they stay home to care for a sick child. As usual, low-wage workers are hit the hardest. A recent Harvard study found that 76 percent of low-wage workers have no paid sick leave. Recent research from the Urban Institute shows that for working parents with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, 41 percent have no paid leave of any kind, i.e no paid sick leave and no paid vacation or paid personal days.

Working women and men are desperate for policies to help them in times of need. No one should be forced to choose between a paycheck and caring for a family member in need. The good news is that proposals already exist. For example, we could establish a national insurance program to provide paid family and medical leave to all workers, use federal grants for state pilot projects to provide paid family and medical leave benefits, or establish refundable tax credits for parents taking time off from work to care for newborns and for workers who need to take family or medical leave at less than full pay.

The U.S. lags far behind the rest of the world in not guaranteeing paid sick and vacation leave to its workers. As a result, almost half of all workers face losing a day’s pay if they need to take a sick day. For some, taking the time off to care for oneself or a sick child can mean losing your job or facing sanctions. We ought to create a national “safety net” that guarantees workers a minimum number of paid, job-protected days of sick leave to be used for the worker’s own illness or to care for a sick family member.

Another way to help working moms and their families is to expand the FMLA to cover routine and emergency medical care for one’s self and family, as well as parent-teacher conferences and other critical children’s educational activities would go along way in reducing the anxiety of the many working parents who lack this job protected leave.

Successful examples already have been implemented at the state level. California has the country’s most comprehensive paid family and medical leave insurance program. As of July 1, over 13 million families will be able to receive partial wages (55-60 percent of wages) to take up to 6 weeks of leave a year to care for a newborn, newly adopted or foster child, or to care for a seriously ill family member, and up to 52 weeks of leave a year to recover from their own serious illness, including pregnancy or birth-related disability. Five states and Puerto Rico have state-administered Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) systems or require employers to offer TDI, which provides partial wage replacement to employees who are temporarily disabled for medical reasons, including pregnancy- or birth-related medical reasons. Five states require private employers to allow employees to use their sick leave to care for certain sick family members. Eight states and the District of Columbia require job protected leave for participation in children’s educational activities and three states require job-protected leave for family medical needs not covered by the FMLA (such as routine or emergency medical needs).

Public support for paid leave initiatives is overwhelming. Eighty-two percent of women and 75 percent of men favor the idea of developing a new insurance program that would give families some income when a worker takes family or medical leave. And, it’s no surprise that working women value work/family policies like paid family leave more than an increase in pay or promotions – despite a difficult economy.

Working parents need these policies more than ever, and the time couldn’t be better to begin talking about real solutions. This Mother’s Day, let’s give our moms a gift that benefits the whole family.

Debra L. Ness is the president-elect for National Partnership for Women and Families and Jodi Grant is Director of Work and family Family Programs for National Partnership for Women and Families.

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