In a perfect world, we could take as much time off of work as we saw fit for a pregnancy or caring for a child. Even better would be if our employers continued to compensate us while we were away, holding our job for our eventual return. But let’s get real – that is a dream far removed from the standards of reality. But are the laws and policies currently in place adequate for parents who require time off of work to care for a newborn or sick child, and at what point do the laws end and do companies have the say? We talked to attorney Ms. Michelle Anderson about the many concerns that this issue brings to individuals as well as businesses.
With a background in workforce development, Ms. Anderson knows what it is like to manage a slew of employees. After completing college, Ms. Anderson first worked at a company in the state of Washington, where she helped people from a variety of personal and professional backgrounds find employment. That work gave her an introduction into the employment arena. In 2004, it was time for a change. Ms. Anderson headed to Loyola for her law degree and today she works on a vast range of cases dealing with workplace rights.
In her representation of corporations, Ms. Anderson is able to do more for employees’ rights than one could in individual lawsuits. “I could help 10, 20, even 30,000 employees with fair and equal policies across the board,” she says, compared to a single plaintiff’s lawyer. The workforce has to acknowledge the challenges that single, working parents face, as well as the strains on a two-parent household where both parents work.
The Family and Medical Level Act (FMLA) is a federal law that dictates a minimum of what employers can offer in terms of maternity or sick leave, and Ms. Anderson admits “it’s complicated.” For example, one of the lesser known details states that FMLA only applies to companies who employ over 50 individuals. On top of that, those 50 people have to be in the same place – if a satellite office exists 100 miles away with only 30 employees, they do not reap the benefits of FMLA. Ms. Anderson’s job is to help employers understand the laws they need to abide by under the FMLA, as well as how they can prevent being taken advantage of by employees.
Many may be surprised to hear that in a study conducted by the National Partnership for Women and Families, which graded each state on a scale from A to F on their treatment of maternity and other family-based leave, Louisiana was the highest scoring southern state with a grade of “C”. The leaders in the nations are California and New Jersey, which were the only two states to score an A. Many of the other southern states failed right out with an F. What makes Louisiana exceptional is that it does offer some benefits in addition to those available under the FMLA. For example, women in the private and public sector have greater access to pregnancy disability leave under state anti-discrimination law than federal law. Employers in Louisiana are also encouraged, but not required, to allot paid hours off for parents to attend school meetings, search for daycares and other such activities. Nevertheless, employers are not required to provide more than six weeks of leave for a “normal” pregnancy – whatever that should be.
The study further concluded that parental leave decreases maternal depression and even infant mortality. The burden on taxpayers also decreases when new parents are offered leave options, particularly in the case of paid leave. They are less likely to rely on public assistance in the form of food stamps and other services.
Globally, a striking contrast can be seen between the United States and other high achieving nations when it comes to leave options for new parents. According to the same study, 178 countries guarantee paid leave to women in connection with childbirth, while 54 countries also guarantee paid paternity leave. Many worry that this could spell a disadvantage for our nation’s competiveness if not improved.
More than anything, one has to remember that businesses are driven by profitability. Mostly, people would love to give new mothers extensive time off and even pay them. However, that kind of practice is simply impossible to sustain in a business. In comes down to the type of job and the company itself. If an employee is needed for face-to-face meetings on a daily basis, then extended time off is simply not profitable for the business. There are, however, positions that offer more flexibility, such as work from home options.
When asked why so relatively few men take advantage of potential time off offered through FMLA, Ms. Anderson believes this is largely a cultural difference. While FMLA offers the opportunity for either parent to take leave, most associate a pregnancy as a time of “temporary disability” and the female is still usually seen as the main caregiver. Ms. Anderson further jokes that females are wired to think that “if it’s not done our way, it’s wrong” in the parenting department.
But there are consequences for women who try to juggle a career and a family. “It takes a toll on their health in the long run,” explains Ms. Anderson. “They don’t get enough sleep or downtime to rejuvenate, and they always struggle.” There are a million things to be aware of - from taking care of the child, to the laundry to the groceries - on top of a full time job. While she does not want to paint men as the bad guys, their help is usually limited. Ultimately, the woman is more likely to sacrifice her time and goals for a family. With proper planning before the birth of a child, the couple may be able to offset some unnecessary stress by planning out who will be responsible for paying a nanny or daycare costs, when/if those are financially viable options.
While the main responsibility for childcare lies with the parents, and disproportionately so with the mother, is it better to let laws govern family and medical leave, or can we rest assured that business offer their employees the best options beyond the minimum requirements? Ms. Anderson believes the latter is the case. “Most employers are parents – and a lot are women,” so they know exactly what it takes to care for a child. Further, businesses want happy employees because “happy employees are productive employees.” On top of that, turnover is time consuming and expensive, and institutional memory is lost when an employee leaves, especially when the employee is a higher level executive. For these reasons, Ms. Anderson argues that larger companies have figured out what works, and they are usually willing to work with their employees when special circumstances arise.
Balancing a family and a career presents great challenges and requires significant sacrifices. It is a choice that should be made with great planning and preparation. We have come a long way to having the rights we enjoy today in the workplace regarding pregnancy and child care. Nevertheless, there is still significant room for improvement - especially in our region of the nation.