By Allison Stevens
Thursday, March 14, 2013
The Family Medical Leave Act was passed 20 years ago and despite the hue and cry, the sky did not fall on employers or the economy. It's time to extend these vital protections to more workers and more obligations.
Credit: Leonard John Matthews/Len Matthews on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)--When the nation's first law helping workers meet the dual demands of work and family was enacted 20 years ago, the pro-business lobby tried to spread a panic.
The Chamber of Commerce called it a "dangerous precedent," according to the Cry Wolf Project, an online network of advocates. John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who is now Speaker of the House of Representatives, said it would be the "demise" of some businesses. "And as that occurs," he continued, "the light of freedom will grow dimmer."
Now, two decades later, many of us would like to expand the Family Medical Leave Act, which guarantees certain workers 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child, a seriously ill spouse, parent or child, or oneself during a serious illness.
The National Partnership for Women and Families, the Washington-based group that drafted the law in 1993, is leading a coalition that is working to strengthen the law so that it covers more workers and more types of caregiving obligations.
I'd like to join this coalition (full disclosure: I work for a firm that supports the coalition) and amplify its position that those who argue against such protections are a bunch of Chicken Littles. (Coinage not mine, but agreement definitely is.)
Congress should amend the law so that people who work for companies with fewer than 50 employees are covered as well as part-time and recently-hired workers. And it should be extended to allow workers to care for adult children, domestic partners, grandparents, grandchildren, parents-in-law or siblings. Workers should also be able to take leave for reasons related to domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, school meetings, medical appointments and bereavement.
As the nation's main caregivers, for children and for aging parents and relatives, women are in particular need of additional protections. But they're not the only ones deserving of these protections.
All women should be able to take time off after giving birth without losing their jobs. And all people should be able to care for themselves, their children or other close relatives and loved ones without losing their jobs.
But we can't stop there: job-protected leave also needs to be paid leave.
Since it's not, many people can't take time off when they need to. If they could, individuals, and indeed all of us, would benefit. Paid leave would promote income stability, work force attachment, financial security and income and retirement security, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.
And the costs of leave would be offset by lower turnover, according to the National Partnership.
Not so, says the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a trade group in Nashville, Tenn. Even extended unpaid leave will cause "considerable burdens on small businesses," it says in a statement.
This is what workers rights' advocates call the squawk of Chicken Little all over again.
Decades--centuries even--of evidence shows that businesses can survive (and thrive) under worker protections.
Workplace reforms go back to Dickensian England, and further. In all that time, numerous advances have been made, ranging from laws that ban child labor, permit collective bargaining and set minimum wages.
They didn't destroy economies. And neither will expanded access to job-protected--and some day, paid--leave.
A February survey by the Department of Labor finds businesses that have been eligible under the law are doing just fine, thank you very much.
Ninety-one percent of employers said that complying with the law has had a good or neutral effect on employee absenteeism, turnover and morale. It also found that the vast majority of employers say that complying with the law is not a problem and that it is very rarely misused.
The Small Business Majority, an advocacy group with offices around the country, recently released a survey of its own, finding widespread support for the law among small business owners. Four out of five respondents said they support the law, and half of those said they strongly support it.
Many workers, meanwhile, can't imagine life without it.
After the birth of my boys, I was able to take leave to recover from labor and delivery and to bond with my newborns. I found the time-off absolutely critical, although I have heard that one woman can survive without it.
That one woman is Yahoo's CEO, Marissa Mayer, who famously said last year that helming a major corporation and caring for a newborn at the same time is both "fun" and "easy."
From my tired-mom eyes, she's . . . one-in-a-million.
In all the ruckus over her recent decision to end remote working, I read that she paid to have a nursery built next to her office, a setup very few of us can command.
Over the last two decades, U.S. workers have relied on the law more than 100 million times to take care of newborns, adopted children, recover from illness, help sick or aging relatives or injured military members, according to the National Partnership.
The law was meant to be a first step on a longer journey to modernize the workplace.
As an alternative to building caretaking units for every employee next to where they work, the Chicken Littles might want to consider the long history of successful worker protections and look up at a sky that, as proponents note, is still firmly in place despite--and perhaps because of--family-friendly laws like the Family Medical Leave Act. It will surely stay up there even if paid leave and extension of coverage were added.
Allison Stevens is a writer in Washington, D.C. She works for a public relations firm whose clients include the National Partnership for Women and Families. These opinions are her own.
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