Valuing Families in the 21st Century: Solving the Work-Family Crisis

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November 1, 2012
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Phoebe Taubman

This year, as in every recent political season, candidates are showering us with promises of a better future and touting their commitment to family values. Yet when it comes to valuing the work of families, ensuring fair and flexible workplaces, and investing in the care of children and their future, American politicians and our policies fall pitifully short. Just look at where the United States ranks compared to countries around the globe. Worldwide, 178 countries guarantee some leave with pay to women in connection with childbirth.1 Seventy-four ensure paid paternity leave or the right to paid parental leave for fathers. In contrast, nearly half of new mothers in the United States lack access to any form of paid parental leave.2 The United States shares the dubious distinction with Papua New Guinea and Swaziland of being one of the only countries on earth not to guarantee paid maternity leave.

The United States also distinguishes itself as one of only a handful of countries that does not universally guarantee paid sick leave for all workers — including time to care for sick family members. In fact, 163 other countries guarantee a minimum number of paid sick days, with many providing a week or more per year for personal health needs.3 In the United States, where parental leave, sick time, child-care arrangements, and flexible work schedules have been left largely to employers and employees to work out on an individual basis, many workers struggle to care for and provide for their families.

Given the core values of the Jewish community, particularly the emphasis on family, caregiving, and learning, it may come as a surprise that Jewish organizations, as employers, also perform poorly on this issue. A recent survey of more than 200 Jewish organizations found that 65 percent offer no paid maternity leave to their employees.4 Of the 35 percent of organizations in the study that do offer paid maternity leave, only 7 percent provide twelve weeks or more, and a full 10 percent of all responding organizations reported providing no maternity leave at all, paid or unpaid. Fathers are even worse off: 61 percent of Jewish organizations offer no paternity leave at all — paid or unpaid.

These statistics are discouraging, and they demonstrate how little we, as a country and as a community, have done to support the real and often invisible work of caregiving. Fortunately, there’s a burgeoning movement to push our workplace policies into the 21st century so that they finally catch up to the way people live and work today.

States and cities are leading the way in workplace policy changes:

• Parental and family leave

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to certain eligible workers to care for themselves or a seriously ill family member, or to bond with a new child. But because of carve-outs, and because the leave is unpaid, nearly half of the private workforce cannot take advantage of the law’s protections. Nearly a dozen states have extended the FMLA’s protections to more people, and two, California and New Jersey, have implemented paid family leave insurance to help workers cover their expenses while caring for their loved ones. New York is poised to follow suit.

• Sick days

There is no federal law on sick leave; but Connecticut, the District of Columbia, San Francisco, and Seattle have all passed laws to guarantee a minimal amount of paid time off for workers to deal with sickness and medical care for themselves and their families. Dozens of other states and cities have considered similar legislation.

• Flexible work arrangements

While flexible work options — from job-sharing to telecommuting — are still scarce for most people who need them, thirteen states and the District of Columbia have begun to require flexibility in time off for workers to take their family members to doctor appointments and for parents to participate in their children’s school activities.

• Combating caregiver discrimination

Civil rights legislation is a familiar and useful tool for combating employment discrimination in the United States. New efforts to expand existing laws are in the works that will provide workplace equity for family caregivers and for pregnant women who need minor workplace adjustments in order to stay healthy and stay on the job.

Too many Americans today face impossible choices between caring for their families and keeping them financially afloat. This is a persistent and systemic problem with serious consequences for public health, gender equality, education, and our economy. It’s time that we all start to focus on the solutions.

1 Jody Heymann and Alison Earle, Raising the Global Floor:  Dismantling the Myth that We Can’t Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone, Stanford University Press (2010). For a global map of maternity benefits, see “How The Zero Weeks Of Paid Maternity Leave In The U.S. Compare Globally” by Amanda Peterson Beadle, thinkprogress.org, May 24, 2012

2 Linda Laughlin, “Maternity Leave and Employment Patterns of First-Time Mothers: 1961-2008,” U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports (Oct. 2011)

3 Raising the Global Floor, 107

4 Shifra Bronznick, Didi Goldenhar and Rachel Ellison, Better Work: Better Life: Practices and Policies in Jewish Organizations, AWP (May 2010), available at advancingwomen.org

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Phoebe Taubman is a senior staff attorney at 
A Better Balance: The Work and Family Legal Center in New York City.

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