After 20 years, some want more from Family and Medical Leave Act

March 13, 2013

The baby shower is what Deb Brewer remembers most. She was so close to her colleagues at the small Arlington nonprofit organization where she worked in the 1990s that they threw her a luncheon shower at the home of one of her colleagues.

Weeks later, she was out of a job, even though she believed the organization had agreed to give her maternity leave.

If Brewer had lived in Norway, she would have been entitled to take 47 weeks off with full pay. If she had lived in Vietnam, she could have received at least partial pay for six months. If she lived in Nigeria or Cambodia, two of the least-hospitable countries to working mothers, she would have been entitled to some paid leave.

According to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report that examined workplace policies in more than 180 countries, 178 guaranteed new mothers paid leave and more than 50 guaranteed new fathers the same perk. Among the handful offering no paid leave: Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and the United States.

Advocates of family-friendly workplace policies have long lamented the shortcomings of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the only federally mandated policy covering families in the workplace.

In Brewer’s case, her nine-person org­anization did not need to comply, because the FMLA covers only businesses with 50 or more employees. The FMLA didn’t protect Losia Nyankale, either. The 29-year-old D.C. mother had been working full-time for just under a year at an Annapolis restaurant when she took a six-week maternity leave.

When the manager who had approved leave was replaced, the new manager told Nyankale he was too busy to see her or to add her back to the schedule, she said.

“Oh, it was stressful,” said Nyankale, who also had a toddler at the time and had to cut short her leave to take another job, with fewer benefits and unpredictable hours. “It certainly didn’t make for that magical first weeks with your baby.”

Despite its limitations, the FMLA has been a boon to many. About 60 percent of the U.S. workforce is covered by the policy, according to the Department of Labor. The act’s provisions have been used more than 100 million times to help workers manage family health crises and newborn care, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

To many employers, this is as far as a government mandate needs to go.

“The priority now should be on economic growth, on getting people jobs that they can consider taking leaves from,” said John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable and former Michigan governor (R).

Elizabeth Milito, counsel for the National Federation of Independent Business, said extending the FMLA to cover small businesses would inhibit flexibility and impose heavy financial burdens. “Many of our members are mom-and-pops; they have 10 to 15 employees,” she said, noting that without human resources departments, the cost of compliance is prohibitive.

Moreover, she said, small business owners don’t need a mandate, because “they know their employees and their families. . . . They go above and beyond to help them.”

If they don’t offer leave, she said, it’s because sometimes the ranks of a small business are too thin to support lengthy absences.

In fact, about 35 percent of U.S. employers offer paid maternity leave for all or most employees and about 20 percent offer paid paternity leave for all or most employees, according to the Labor Department. Some large corporations and law firms, in order to compete for the top talent, are using paid maternity and paternity leaves as perks. But employers tend not to offer the paid leave to lower-skilled workers, surveys show.

Activists pushing for more paid family leave say the lack of it weakens the overall economy as well as individual families.

“Certainly, the health of kids and the future health of kids — which affects our economy — has to be considered when we talk about family policies,” said Carolyn Miles, president and chief executive of Save the Children, which has studied the effects of workplace policies on family health worldwide. “But, I think in this country, we’ve take the shortsighted view.”

Miles says that when a parent can concentrate on a child in his first weeks and months of life, both parent and child tend to be healthier in the short- and long-term. Shorter leaves, Save the Children has found, directly correlate to the curtailing of breast-feeding and its immunity-boosting benefits.

Reports, such as one published in the Journal of Women’s Health last year, have suggested a link between a new mother giving up breast-feeding earlier than desired because of work obligations and a heightened risk for postpartum depression.

“The fact that FMLA is unpaid leave makes it unrealistic that many workers can take advantage of it or they can’t take all of what they need,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of 20 state and local coalitions pushing to expand family-friendly policies in the workplace.

Another factor affecting the use of family and medical leave is one that is hard to legislate — societal resistance. The decline of labor unions in the past 50 years has fostered the notion that workplace value is tied to the number of hours worked, said Stephanie Coontz, a cultural historian and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families at the University of Miami.

As women have become increasingly accepted in the workplace, they have become part of what she calls a self-reinforcing cycle of measuring worth by hours worked — not time off.

Still, proponents of workplace protections say the trend is toward more options and flexibility for working parents.

While the FMLA may not have achieved all that workplace proponents had hoped for over the past 20 years, there are signs that what is not being done federally is happening on the state and local level.

California and New Jersey both have instituted small payroll taxes to fund family medical leaves. Legislators in Washington state, Arizona, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania have or are considering similar proposals.

Meanwhile, several cities have mandated or are considering mandating employees to provide earned sick leave.

“I’m most optimistic about the grass-roots efforts,” said Bravo of Family Values @ Work.

D’Arcy is a freelance writer.

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