Family Values? US Has the World’s Least Flexible Workplaces

  • submit to reddit
Tacoma Fire Dept. firefighters Gayle Nikolaisen, left, Lt. Jennifer Gunnell and Karen Leming pose atop their fire engine Sunday, March 3, 2002. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Tacoma Fire Dept. firefighters Gayle Nikolaisen, left, Lt. Jennifer Gunnell and Karen Leming pose atop their fire engine Sunday, March 3, 2002. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The phrase “family values” has become a proxy for a suite of policy preferences championed by the religious right. But what would a set of policies that truly reflected the value of American families look like?

A good place to begin in creating such policies would be addressing our uniquely inflexible workplaces. Over the past couple of generations, two-earner households have become more common as women have come to play an increasingly vital role in the American workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1971 and 2011, while men’s participation in the workforce fell by 11 percent, women’s increased by more than a third. That’s also true of women with children under the age of 18 – seven out of 10 mothers worked in 2011.

And despite our happy talk about gender equality, women continue to bear the lion’s share of the burden of caring for kids, elderly parents and ill family members. In the Unites States, many juggle these realities without access to paid sick leave, parental leave or the ability to work a flexible schedule.

But there’s an effort underway to push America’s employers to catch up with the realities of the 21st-century family. Last month, two think tanks — the Center for American Progress and the Center for Economic and Policy Research — issued a report, “Job Protection Isn’t Enough: Why America Needs Paid Parental Leave,” which laid out the reasons that effort is so important. spoke with economist Heather Boushey, executive director of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and one of the report’s coauthors. Below is a transcript of our discussion that has been lightly edited for clarity.

Joshua Holland: The primary effect of having inflexible workplaces, where few people are eligible for paid parental leave, is obvious: People who take unpaid time off to care for a baby or an elderly parent lose those wages.

But there’s also a longer-term effect. Karen Kornbluh, US representative to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, says that the gender wage gap should be thought of as a “baby gap” — she estimated that a first child lowers a woman’s earnings by an average of almost eight percent. Can you explain why that is, and how paid leave might help?

Heather Boushey: We’ve moved to an economy where most mothers are breadwinners, where people increasingly have responsibilities for aging family members, even as they’re employed in the workplace. And yet, we haven’t really thought about how we need to revamp our workplace policies to make sure that those people who have caregiving responsibilities are able to stay in jobs, move up the ladder, not have this every day conflict between work and family that makes it impossible for them to do their job well and to be a good family member.

The issue of paid leave is so important for families at a number of different times in life. They’re important when a new child comes into the family, but they’re also really important when an aging parent falls down and breaks a hip, or has a heart attack or needs some help from an adult child — when that caregiver may need to take some time off. And all of those moments can derail careers. They can make it very challenging in terms of the income shock; if you can’t go to work because you have to provide care for a family member, you don’t have that income. But it’s also about whether or not you’re able to keep your job and your position in the workplace. So these are the big challenges that people are facing today.

Holland: So when you have to temporarily exit the workforce to do these things, you lose seniority, you lose opportunities for advancement and there are holes in your resume. It has a ripple effect.

Boushey: Exactly. Not only does it have that ripple effect on all these other pieces of your labor market experience, but we know that this is more likely to happen to people in the bottom half or bottom two-thirds of the wage distribution than the folks at the very top. About half of all workers have access to job-protected leave. Thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act, they can take up to 12 weeks of leave and their job is protected.

But a lot of workers still don’t have access to that, and people who don’t have access to it tend to be younger workers, tend to be people with an intermittent work history, tend to be in the lower end of the wage distribution, tend to work for small employers, so by definition they aren’t eligible for Family and Medical Leave.

So those folks don’t have that job protection. And then, of course, only people who live in California, New Jersey and now Rhode Island have any pay when they take leave. So it causes people to have to make that tough choice about staying on the job. Maybe they lose their job, and then they can’t move up.

Holland: Economist Gene Sperling also noted that the average time a worker needs to put in to get pension benefits is five years. Men’s average length at the same job is 5.1 years, but for women it’s less than four years. So, again, we see that ripple effect.

You mentioned the FMLA, the Family and Medical Leave Act. Can you give us a sense of how many people were left uncovered by FMLA?

Boushey: It only covers people who’ve worked a minimum number of hours over the past 12 months with a single employer. So if you’ve switched jobs in the past year then you’re not eligible. If you work less than part-time, you’re ineligible. And you have to work for an employer that has at least 50 people at your workplace or within a 75-mile radius, so it excludes small employers. The most recent estimates are that, at any given time, about 50 to 60 percent of people who are currently working are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act.

I do think it’s important to note that in some states, they now have programs in place that offer workers paid leave. There are statewide insurance programs that every worker pays into, and then they get benefits when they take the kinds of leave covered under the FMLA. So that’s a very exciting new development. And we’re really hopeful that other states will be able to move forward on that, too.

Holland: How do we stack up on paid leave compared with other rich countries? Do women everywhere face these kinds of challenges?

Boushey: One of my good friends, Joan Williams, says the United States has the most family-hostile policies of the developed world. And it’s true to the extent that we are a country that claims to value families, and yet, when you look at our policies, we are the extreme outlier in not providing paid parental leave to workers and their families.

Holland: When Harvard’s Project on Global Working Families did a study of these policies, it looked at 170 countries, including developing countries. They found that the only countries that didn’t offer paid leave were Australia — which has since enacted it — the US, Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.

Boushey: It’s remarkable. The reality is that most other countries have had a national conversation about the importance of care and how workers need to be able to provide for their families, and yet, we in the United States have not had that same conversation and made that same decision. It’s an embarrassment, quite frankly. When you tell people from other countries about this, you get these wide eyes. It really is quite humbling to see just how un-“family friendly” we are.

Holland: We’ve been discussing this in the context of working women, and I don’t want to downplay the disproportionate role that they play in caregiving. But the reality is that it isn’t an issue that only impacts women. Women head up a huge number of households. More than one in four businesses in this country are owned by women. Do you think these issues get less attention because they’re defined as women’s issues?

Boushey: These are family issues.

One of the things that we’ve seen over the past few years is that surveys that track work-family conflict have found that men are now reporting more conflict than women are. My hypothesis is that a lot of this has to do with caring for aging family members. If you have a traditional family with a husband and a wife and they’re both working, it’s different than a generation or two ago, when she was at home. Back then, when his mom got sick, his wife would take care of her. Well, now his wife’s got a job of her own. She can’t necessarily take off time to care for her ailing parents and his ailing parents, and so he has to do that himself. And we’re seeing that causing more stress for families, but also really underscoring that, in a world where we have greater gender equity in terms of labor force participation, we are also seeing greater gender equity in terms of care, and we need to build that into our policy structures.

Holland: Can we tie this issue back to reproductive choice? Pro-choice doesn’t mean pro-abortion. It means supporting the idea of having a choice. I wonder how many women seek an abortion who might otherwise choose differently if they had access to paid leave. Has anyone studied that?

Boushey: I haven’t seen anyone study that. But we certainly don’t make it easy. A number of years ago my colleague John Schmitt and I looked at who was eligible for unpaid family medical leave, and we found that among young African-American women who have a young child at home — under the age of one or maybe one and a half — almost half of them, 48 percent, were categorically ineligible for family medical leave because of the job tenure requirement alone.

And this was for women under the age of 25; I think it was age 18–25 that we were looking at. Now, I say that because most women have their first child before the age of 25, and yet we are not doing nearly enough to make sure that they have the supports that they need to be both good workers and good parents. We’re leaving them out in the cold.

And I think that that is certainly connected to the debates about reproductive choice and the decisions that many women are making to have children later in life or to not have children at all. So I do think making that connection is really, really important. If we care about families, if we care about newborns, we have to care about paid family leave.

Holland: Gene Sperling made another point when he cited a study that found that businesses that offer paid leave are 2.5 percent more profitable than those that don’t. What might explain that?

Boushey: We know from a lot of research that job turnover costs firms money. It costs a lot to hire and train new people, it costs a lot in terms of the amount of dedication a worker has and how much somebody knows about how to do their job. If you don’t attempt to keep turnover low — if you don’t do that by providing workers with the resources that they need to actually care for their families when they have to, when it’s most important, so that they can show up for work and do a good job — then you’re going to see higher turnover, and you’re going to see people who are less productive on the job because they’re balancing too many things.

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
  • submit to reddit