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.