Today marks the fourteenth anniversary of the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the act which grants eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year in order, for example, to care for a new child, a sick child, partner, or parent, or in the event one is physically unable to perform his or her job. The FMLA also includes provisions to protect employees’ positions and benefits, and to prevent employers from interfering or retaliating.
It is a good time, then, to take stock of our position in the world when it comes to supporting those working in the paid labor force who are also raising children and sometimes serving as caregivers for an ill or elderly family member. We’re not faring well according to data from a just-released study from Harvard and McGill universities.
According to the Work, Family, and Equity Index, on measures ranging from leave for childbearing and adoption, sick days, and available time to care for family members, the U.S. provides considerably less than other high-income countries, and even falls behind a number of middle- and low-income countries. Other countries that also fail to guarantee paid maternity leave, include Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea.
There is a lot of smoke from these issues on Capitol Hill, but not a lot of fire. The Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act, sponsored by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), would expand coverage and allow for paid leave. The Family and Work Balancing Act, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), is aimed at parents and includes provisions for paid leave, support for childcare, after-school care, and school nutrition. Also lingering (and languishing?) is the Healthy Families Act, championed by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), that would require some employers to provide a minimum number of paid sick days each year for certain employees to care for themselves or a family member.
And now, prompted by challenges from business groups and criticism from federal courts, the Department of Labor is reviewing a provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act that allows for unpaid leave to respond to family or medical emergencies. Supporters worry that this could scale back worker protections. What is clear is that we need to have a better policy—one that protects families, rather than weakening them.
Why should we care?
- The most competitive economies in the world provide meaningful family leave policies. Strong family leave policies are known to improve the economic conditions of families and of employers.
- Caring for and about others is at the heart of a healthy society. Studies show that stronger family leave policies lower long-term poverty, and improve population health and education because they enable family members to spend more time with children and others in need of care.
- Demographic shifts are increasing the need for caregivers and families to respond, with the help of others. The aging population, for example, is expanding. Between 2000 and 2050, the number of people in the U.S. between the ages of 65 and 74 will grow to 35 million from 18 million, the number of people 75-85 will grow to 26 million from 12 million, and most dramatically, the population age 85+ will grow to 18 million from 4 million. These changing demographics give rise to a growing need for long-term care.
Workers are family members first; it is families that make up the social fabric. And one measure of our equality is that we all have a need for care at some time. Existing bills have the right spirit. But we will need to think more broadly, with a more progressive vision, in crafting public policy for the future.
Guided by values such as compassion, respect for human dignity, and justice, a progressive policy agenda for families should at minimum include paid leave for the arrival of a child, a need to care for an elderly or disabled family member, illness, participation in school activities, and job and benefit protection for all workers. It could also be expanded to include resources to help family members navigate child-care and long-term care options, more paid annual leave, and limits on work hours. America’s families need support. And when they get it, everyone benefits.