In President Obama’s own words, too many American workplaces resemble scenes from Mad Men. Many employers’ attitudes toward family-friendly reforms seem to stem from the same unenlightened era—that is, at least, until they see the bottom-line results that these reforms can inspire. For a nation that claims to value family, the United States has an abysmal record on family-friendly workplace policies. Without access to maternity and paternity leave, affordable childcare and paid sick leave, working parents have almost no flexibility to balance the needs of their families with the requirements of their jobs. In short, when it comes to family-friendly labor policies, America is, indeed, exceptional—exceptionally backward.
Take paid sick days. As I’ve written previously, more than 40 million Americans, mostly low-income workers, lack access to paid sick leave. No matter how ill they are, they must clock in—and they could lose their jobs if they stay home to care for a sick child or aging parent. Meanwhile, childcare remains prohibitively expensive, and the United States has yet to enact universal pre-K, all of which leave even middle-class working parents with few affordable options for their little ones.
Paid sick days are overwhelmingly popular across ideological lines. Ninety-six percent of Democrats, 87 percent of independents and 73 percent of Republicans support the policy. Moreover, this popularity is supported by the data. Five years after the 2004 implementation of California’s Paid Family Leave program, for example, employers reported a neutral or positive affect on employee productivity, profitability and turnover. New Jersey’s program saved businesses money by improving employee retention, decreasing turnover and boosting productivity. Also, it’s simply common sense. The chief lobbyist against the paid sick leave bill in San Francisco told Businessweek that, among various workplace reforms, paid sick leave offers “the best public policy for the least cost. Do you want your server coughing over your food?”
Then there’s maternity and paternity leave. Today, around 2 million men stay at home to raise their children. Beyond that, even the masses of men who aren’t primary caregivers are increasingly involved in the details of childrearing. But while men are more hands-on than ever before, they are nevertheless experiencing more conflict between their work and family roles than they did thirty years ago.
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, many, but not all, employees are allowed to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave for things like illness and the birth of a child, without the risk of losing their jobs. However, up to 40 percent of workers do not meet the law’s strict eligibility requirements. The United States is the only Western country that does not mandate paid maternity leave—and just 14 percent of employers offer paid leave for new fathers. Moreover, while new mothers physically have no choice but to take at least some time off—even at the risk of losing pay or even their jobs—one study found that 86 percent of working fathers would not use paternity leave unless they were paid at least 70 percent of their salaries. The same study revealed that fathers generally take a meager two weeks off from work after the birth of a new child.