‘Mad Men’ era of U.S. family policy coming to an end?


Dannelle  Buchman was shocked to find she did not qualify for unpaid family leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act after the birth of her child. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Fresh on the heels of President Obama’s State of the Union call for an end to outdated “Mad Men”-era workplace policies, a newly released poll shows that a majority of American voters support “family friendly” policies like an increased minimum wage, fair pay for men and women, affordable child care, paid sick days, and paid family and medical leave.

The poll of 1,000 likely voters, commissioned by American Women, the National Partnership for Women & Families and the Rockefeller Family Fund, found that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed supported such family policies, including majorities of men and women, majorities of whites, African Americans and Hispanic voters, majorities of young and old voters and majorities of voters in different regions of the country.

Nearly 90 percent of Democrats, who tend to believe that government should play a role in solving social issues, were in support of the family friendly policies, as were 54 percent of Independents.

Nearly half, 46 percent, of Republican voters surveyed likewise signaled support. Among Republicans, who tend to favor voluntary policies or tax incentives for businesses rather than government mandates, 54 percent of GOP women were in favor of the call for more family supportive policies, as were 36 percent of men.

“This is a reflection of the strong recognition across the country, across region, across class, race, and gender, that something needs to change,” said Vicki Shabo, director of the work and family programs at the National Partnership. “People instinctively know that something is not right, that families are held back, that the U.S. economy is held back. They want to address these issues, and they’re willing to vote on them.”

Opponents of paid leave laws, including the Society for Human Resources Management and other business groups, say businesses should voluntarily design family friendly work policies, and not be forced to follow government mandates. They warn that businesses could be hurt and jobs lost.

Still, 60 percent of those surveyed in January for the poll said a candidate’s support for these workplace policies would likely determine their vote. The polling was done by Democratic pollsters Anzalone Liszt Grove Research and the Feldman Group, and included an oversample of Latino voters.


Poll Commissioned by American Woman, the Partnership for Women & Families and the Rockefeller Family Fund

To Shabo and other advocates, the poll is an indication that the work and family movement, long-moribund at the national level, is beginning to pick up steam at the state level.

In January, Rhode Island became the third state, along with California and New Jersey, to implement a paid family and medical leave insurance fund, paid for through employee paycheck deductions, and 20 other jurisdictions have appointed task forces or have similar legislation pending for paid leave or paid sick days, she said.

Portland, Ore., New York, Jersey City and the District of Columbia have all passed paid sick days laws in the past year, joining San Francisco, Seattle and the state of Connecticut.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, called for paid sick leave in his recent State of the State address, And the city council of Los Angeles, in a show of support, voted unanimously to back a federal 12-week paid family leave law, paid by employers and employees, now pending in Congress.

The current Family and Medical Leave Act, which passed in 1993 after a bruising decade-long battle, gives workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year, as long as they have worked full time for at least one year for an employer with more than 50 employees. A Department of Labor survey last year found that the unpaid leave law does not cover 40 percent of the U.S. workforce.

But unlike 20 years ago, when many business groups lined up solidly against the FMLA, a number of businesses, including the Main Street Alliance, U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the American Sustainable Business Council, and others, are supporting family policies at the state and national level.

The conversation, one chamber of commerce official told me, is changing.

“Obviously, the law was put in place for a good reason,” said Michael Egenton, senior vice president of government relations at the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “The employer wants to be sympathetic to the needs of the employee, when they need time off to care for themselves or a loved one. We know our best asset is our employee.”

And while he raised concerns about the difficulty some businesses have tracking the leave, he said that what businesses in the state most want now is uniformity: federal law. “It’s always better when we have a uniform federal initiative that applies to everyone across the board,” he explained, “so New Jersey doesn’t have something unique and different to other states, especially those that are close by that we have to compete with like New York, Delaware and Connecticut.”

Jennifer Barrera, with the California Chamber of Commerce, the group that vehemently opposed the paid leave law when it passed in 2002, said they haven’t heard from employers that the law is a burden. A 2010 study by the Society for Human Resource Management perhaps says it best: “California Paid Family Leave is Less Onerous Than Predicted.”

 At a recent panel discussion on paid leave laws I moderated at the Aspen Institute, John Feehery, a conservative Republican strategist and writer, said he was initially skeptical of the FMLA when it passed in 1993, but has since come to embrace the idea of family policies like paid leave and affordable child care. What changed his mind? Having children of his own.

On the panel, Feehery said he is motivated by alarm at the “perilously low” birthrate, the economic and emotional stress many families are under, and by a sense of moral obligation that we as a society should take care of each other.

“We’ve got to rethink how we take care of kids,” he said. “We have to think more holistically — are we a pro-family government or not?”

It’s a question, Peter Moss, a professor who specializes in leave policies at the University of London, said Europeans have been asking about the United States for decades. For the past several years, Moss has compiled an annual report of family leave policies in advanced countries. The United States is the only advanced country without any. (Previous studies of more than 170 countries have found that the U.S. is the only advanced economy without a paid leave law.)

“There is a degree of puzzlement about it,” he said. “Why has the sense of American exceptionalism extended to this field, as well as others?”

Germany passed its first paid maternity leave policy in 1870, he said. Britain in the 1970s. And most advanced countries have in recent years expanded paid leave from mothers to include fathers, recognizing, he said, that both parents typically work, and so government policies are aimed to support a couple more equitably sharing the load at home.

“We’re finding that men who take parental leave are more involved with their children later on in life,” he said.

In order to encourage more fathers to take leave, Moss said that Iceland is moving from it’s “3-3-3” paid leave policy after the birth or adoption of a child — three months for the mother, three months for the father and three months for the family to share  – and moving to a “5-5-2” model in 2016. Five months for the mother, five for the father and two for the family to share.

Jane Waldfogel, a professor at Columbia University who studies public policy and child and family well-being, is responsible for submitting the report on the United States to the annual international paid leave report that Moss compiles.

Reading through the report each year, seeing what other countries are doing is “tough,” she said. Most countries in the report offer families as much as one year with some portion of their incomes replaced while they physically recover, breastfeed and bond as a family.

“Policymakers will ask me what I think ought to be provided, and I say I honestly think parents ought to have the option to stay home for up to a year, or work part-time for up-to a year,” she said. “That statement draws a lot of laughs or incredulous looks. But that’s, on average, what other countries provide. You talk to people in other countries and explain that women in the United States go back to work after six to eight weeks and they just can’t believe it.”

A big reason for her recommendation, she said, is child care. Good infant care is tough to find, she said. and high-quality care is wildly expensive.

“I have yet to understand why we lag so far behind other countries,” she said. “And I have to remain optimistic that at some point we’ll catch up.”

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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