The Forgotten Family Value

On June 23rd, President Barack Obama spoke on at the White House Summit on Working Families [1] to urge reforms so that Americans could have more affordable child care, paid maternity leave, and greater numbers of employers friendly to the idea of allowing flexible scheduling to address family concerns. Among his remarks the President made were “Family leave, child care, workplace flexibility, a decent wage — these are not frills, they are basic needs. They shouldn’t be bonuses. They should be part of our bottom line as a society.” [2]  

In a nation where the term “family values” has become a sturdy political buzzword, why do we give such short shrift to the sorts of family-first laws that are common in every other industrialized country? Make no mistake, the United States is not just behind the traditional social welfare state notables of Western Europe, we’re an international outlier. According to the United Nations’ agency International Labour Organization, 185 nations provide some sort of paid maternity leave. Seventy-eight countries even provide paid paternity leave. [3] The US holds company with Oman and Papua New Guinea as the only countries that don’t have a type of national benefit for family care.

Until the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) became law in 1993, no federal recourse existed at all for workers who might have a health concern and didn’t want to potentially risk losing their job. The problem with the FMLA, however, is that it lacks the strength to be of real assistance to Americans in a tough personal or home health matter. The law allows up to 12 weeks of personal time off caring for a baby, or for personal or family medical concerns. But while the person’s job is supposed to be held for them, employers are not required to pay the staff member. According to a report by National Public Radio, approximately 40% of the workforce is ineligible for FMLA since it only covers employees working at least 25 hours at that particular job, and companies with fewer than 50 staff are exempt. [4] Many Americans literally can’t afford to go that long without a salary, and that leads to situations of poor productivity, lower morale, added stress, and absenteeism. Some employees may also feel that their organizations may pass them over for promotions or key assignments if they are perceived as “abusing” leave or putting their families first.

It’s not due to a lack of interest or public support that family-friendly leave policies aren’t part of national policy. The Center for American Progress, for instance, released a poll that found 71% of respondents supported paid family leave for workers to utilize when a child or other immediate family member is ill. A similar 75% believed there should be a minimum number of paid “sick days”. These findings showed support across the board as self-identified Republicans, perceived to be friendlier to the employer than the employee, agreed with these potential initiatives at 62 and 65 percent respectively. [5]
Three states currently offer some form of paid medical leave: California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Additionally, Washington state has passed a law, but has yet to implement funding. Connecticut has appointed a task force to study the possibility of bringing such a benefit to its citizens. [6] Rhode Island runs a coverage system for those who are classified as temporarily disabled. The paid family leave aspect will expand the initiative over the course of a few years. For a payroll deduction, workers can get up to 4 weeks paid leave in 2014, 6 weeks in 2015, and then 8 weeks in 2016. For someone earning a $43,000 salary the deduction would be a mere 83 cents per pay stub. Weekly benefits begin at $72 up to a maximum of $752. Unlike FMLA, four-fifths of those employed in the state are eligible. [7]   

The states that have taken the initiative to run their own paid family leave policies aren’t doing so without controversy. The reality is that these plans do cost money, and a lot of it. To fund them they must collect more taxes, and require more civil servants to administer the benefit program. Small businesses in particular can feel burdened to keep track of additional paperwork and pay a portion of an employee’s wages who is away. However, studies of California’s [8] and New Jersey’s [9] programs show either a positive or at least neutral effect on businesses. Moreover, because employees are electing the coverage through payroll deductions, “(p)aid family leave is NOT a tax, but income replacement insurance program funded by employees at minimal cost.” [10]

There are additional social benefits for extending a paid family leave program. Fathers have very little current benefit available to them to assist in caregiving for a new child. Only 14% of employers offer a paternity leave.  [11]  Since many fathers who might like to be involved with their children may also be the lead bread-winner in their households, 86% of polled dads suggested they could not afford time off unless they were certain of retaining 70% of their salary. If we want more involved fathers, we need paid leave.

Besides improving the potential for more paternal input in caregiving, the Catholic Church’s social teaching on the preferential option for the poor is a vital aspect to the movement to offer paid leave. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data, a mere 4 percent of the lowest-wage workers are employed by organizations that provide family leave. [12] The inability to care for family members without the risk of losing wages or one’s job contributes to poor social outcomes that can keep folks in poverty or ill health.

Having more affordable child care is an associated but critical concern for many parents. There are several possibilities in this area. One is to expand the federal Household and Dependent Care Credit in the IRS tax code. The Care Credit is determined by a percentage of the filer’s earnings. Lower-income households get a higher credit. However, the maximum amount per year is $3,000, which has barely nudged up since it was created in 1981. Pegging the credit to inflation would help more families to benefit from this tax credit. But recent legislation suggests we are going backward on this opportunity to provide real assistance for families of all means. [13] Businesses of all sizes could also be offered tax credits for initiating or expanding on-site day care or assisting employees to obtain care at a private facility. Pursuing “flex-time” or telecommuting also offer opportunities for a better work-life balance when it comes to child care.

Interestingly, Obama has not publicly endorsed his Democratic Party’s bill, currently in Congress, which would offer workers 12 weeks of time off while allowing up to two-thirds of the employee’s salary (capped at $4,000). The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, introduced by Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut in the House of Representatives, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York in the Senate, would create a trust fund within the Social Security Administration that would deduct 0.2 percent of employee wages and employer contributions rather than being funded by the annual Federal budget. Representative DeLauro had a personal experience of requiring leave while battling ovarian cancer in 1986 while serving on then Senator Christopher Dodd’s staff. Her position allowed her the opportunities to recuperate without the risk she would lose her job or wages. But many other Americans do not have similar workplaces. Senator Gillibrand says the bill’s rationale is that “(w)hen a young parent needs time to care for a newborn child – it should never come down to an outdated policy that lets her boss decide how long it will take – and decide the fate of her career and her future along with it. When any one of us – man or woman – needs time to care for a dying parent – we should not have to sacrifice our job and risk our future to do the right thing for our family. Choosing between your loved ones and your career and your future is a choice no one should have to make.” [14]
A national benefit system that could provide paid time off for maternity or paternity leave, personal or family medical care, and more affordable child care, would improve real family values in the United States by declaring that, while productive work matters, so does our priority to give care to our loved ones.

Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk Morrison is chairman of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.