“Though it may seem counterintuitive, providing paid family and medical leave when people cannot work due to caregiving responsibilities helps keep people employed. In the short term it keeps people away from work, but in the long term it reduces the number of people who have to quit their jobs when they need time off to care for a seriously ill family member or when they have a new child. Paid medical leave serves this same purpose for workers who have short-term but serious illnesses that prevent them from working” write Heather Boushey and Sarah Jane Glynn in a report released yesterday by the Center for American Progress.
At a time when the majority of American women are employed outside the home, many single mothers and fathers are heading families on their own, and older Americans increasingly need care from younger relatives, the challenges of meeting family responsibilities and holding down a job are more difficult than ever. As the Future of Children’s Work and Family volume documents, when U.S. families need care for children or elderly relatives, they rely primarily not on government policies and programs but on themselves and their employers. Employer supports, however, are inequitably distributed, with the best packages of benefits going to the highest-paid workers. As a result, employees who may most need employer assistance in meeting family needs may be least likely to receive it.
As Boushey and Glynn show, providing paid family and medical leave would most likely have positive effects on employment and lifetime income, with the largest impact among less-educated and lower-income families – those who currently have the least access to any form of leave.
Workers who have a new child, experience a personal medical emergency or have an ailing family member often either have to quit their jobs to provide short-term intensive care or lose their jobs because they are unable to take job-protected leave. As Boushey, an author in the Future of Children’s Work and Family volume noted at its fall release at the Brookings Institution, “we did all that work on welfare reform in the 1990’s that encouraged low income individuals, especially women, to work… and so [workplace flexibility, leave policies] must be the next step. We want that single Mom in the workplace, but we have to make sure that she can stay in the workplace, that she can hold on to her job while taking care of her children.”
Yet, as Jane Waldfogel and Sara McLanahan note in Work and Family, providing additional paid leave could be difficult for many U.S. small businesses, particularly as the nation continues to struggle with the aftereffects of the recession. Waldfogel and McLanahan suggest that it is reasonable to ask all employers to provide a minimal amount of paid sick leave and other leave time to all employees. But longer leaves, where required for parents of newborns or for caregivers of those with serious longer-term health conditions, would probably be better provided through some other mechanism, such as a social insurance fund like the one that undergirds Social Security retirement and disability programs. Boushey and Glynn describe what such a fund might look like in their recent report.
For more research-based information on work and family in the United States, go to the Future of Children’s fall 2011 volume Work and Family.