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Work and family agenda faces tough climate

In some ways, conditions couldn’t be better for those seeking to make family leave and paid sick days available to more American workers. In some ways, conditions could scarcely be worse.
Image: Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama, left, takes part in a women's round-table discussion at St. George's Episcopal Church in Ardmore, Pa., on March 13. She has identified work/family balance as one of a handful of issues atop her priority list as first lady. Matt Rourke / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

In some ways, conditions couldn’t be better for those seeking to make family leave and paid sick days available to more American workers. In some ways, conditions could scarcely be worse.

The work/family cause now has ardent champions in President-elect Barack Obama and self-described mom-in-chief Michelle Obama, who says it will be among her top priorities. The strengthened Democratic majority in Congress is certain to lend a hand.

Yet the ambitious agenda, featuring bills that would for the first time mandate paid sick days and paid family leave nationwide for many businesses, is colliding head-on with the worst economic crisis in decades, giving wary employers and their allies fresh ammunition for their fight against the mandates.

“A recession is not the time to raise the cost of work,” said Douglas Besharov, a public policy expert with the American Enterprise Institute. “If Obama gives in to his constituent groups, he may well make it much more difficult to fix the economic crisis.”

Liberal activists say the meltdown should send the opposite message.

“Bad economic times are the worst times to lose a job because your child is sick or your father has a stroke,” insists Ellen Bravo, a Milwaukee author and teacher who advocates on behalf of working women.

National debate expected
Events of recent months, as the meltdown intensified, give hints of a seesaw national debate that likely lies ahead.

In Milwaukee, voters on Election Day made their city the third — after San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — to require private employers to provide paid sick days.

However, a proposed ballot measure that would have imposed a similar sick-day mandate statewide in Ohio was withdrawn by its backers after Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland came out against it. He worried it would place the state’s businesses at a disadvantage until there was a federal sick-day law.

In Washington state, the Democrats who hold power say they will have to delay the start of a paid family leave plan because of budget woes. And in New Jersey, Republican lawmakers citing the meltdown want to postpone implementation of a paid family leave law which is due to take effect July 1.

Advocates of pro-worker reform contend the economic crisis makes their cause all the more valid.

“Laws and policies that support families in their everyday struggles are more important than ever,” said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. “The risk of losing pay, or a job, is even greater because jobs are going to be so scarce.

“I know our opposition will say the opposite — it’s an economy that has everybody quite fearful,” Ness said. “This is a time when families need these kind of protections the most.”

U.S. ranks behind other nations
Even in favorable economic times, the United States ranks behind other developed countries in regard to many family-friendly workplace policies. According to McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy:

  • The U.S. is one of only four countries out of 173 in a recent survey that doesn’t guarantee some form of paid maternity leave; the others are Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea.
  • Sixty-six countries, but not the U.S., ensure that fathers either receive paid paternity leave or have a right to paid parental leave.
  • At least 145 countries provide paid sick days, with 136 providing a week or more annually, while the U.S. has no federal law providing for paid sick days.

There’s no timetable yet for work/family legislation to be pushed in the new Congress, but activists predict relatively prompt action on the Healthy Families Act, which would require businesses with at least 15 employees to provide seven paid sick days per year. Most American workers are eligible for paid sick days through individual company policies, but more than 46 million workers are not — including about three-quarters of low-wage workers.

Perhaps further along in the congressional calendar, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., wants to push his proposal for eight weeks of paid family leave, to be funded through shared employer/employee premiums. The leave could be used by workers to cope with their own illness, to care for an ailing child, spouse or parent, or to be at home with a newborn or newly adopted child.

Dodd was the author of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which has enabled millions of workers to take unpaid leaves but excludes about 40 percent of the work force whose employers have fewer than 50 workers. Barack Obama has proposed expanding this law to cover employers with 25 or more workers.

Strong public support
To activists, the Election Day result in Milwaukee was a measure of the strong public support for work/family measures. The sick-day proposal was opposed by Mayor Tom Barrett and the city’s Association of Commerce, but it passed overwhelmingly with 69 percent support.

Milwaukee businesses with 11 or more employees will now have to provide nine paid sick days per year for full-time workers. Smaller businesses will have to provide five paid sick days.

The Association of Commerce intends to challenge the new law in court.

“This ordinance sends a strong message that Milwaukee is not open for businesses and is a huge red flag for any company looking to locate business or jobs here,” said the association’s president, Tim Sheehy.

However, the alliance that promoted the ordinance had some business executives in its ranks, including Margaret Henningsen, a vice president of Legacy Bank, which she and two colleagues founded in 1999 to serve inner-city neighborhoods.

She says her bank, with many mothers among its 37 employees, has thrived by offering generous family-friendly benefits including paid sick days.

“We’ve always tried to work with our employees when they need time off — it’s almost punitive not to pay them,” Henningsen said. “If they know they’re not going to lose that money, they’ll be loyal to the company. ... They don’t abuse it.”

More working mothers
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, who co-founded the grassroots, Internet-based group MomsRising three years ago, says policy-makers need to push harder for family-friendly workplace practices reflecting the fact that three-quarters of mothers now work.

“Our labor policies haven’t caught up,” she said. “Kids and mothers are falling through the cracks, and in a time of economic crisis the pressures will only get worse.”

Beth Wolter of Lakewood, Colo., a mother of four, is now a municipal employee whose job often brings her in touch with hard-pressed working parents. But she remembers her own struggles as a single mother, starting out with a public service job while raising three small children.

“In my first year, I didn’t get sick leave,” she recalled. “My kids got every illness under the sun. I nearly lost my job, constantly calling in — I was missing two, three days a week, not getting paid.... I had to beg them to keep me on.”

She says many parents are now in similar plights.

“You have three kids who get chicken pox, one after the other, and you have to take off that time,” Wolter said. “If you leave the kids alone, you get accused of neglect. But pretty soon, you hear, ‘We’re going to have to let you go.’”

Fired for being ill
While working mothers are the focus of the work/family campaign, working fathers — and single people — also are playing a part.

Asha Carter, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, became active in the paid-sick-day campaign in part because of her indignation at being fired from a temporary job at an auto parts plant when she was seriously ill one day and came in late.

“It’s a problem for singles, working parents, low-wage workers, everybody — it’s universal,” said Carter, 23, who’s majoring in women’s studies and hopes to serve in the Peace Corps.

The business community’s opposition to the Milwaukee sick day ordinance — and the wariness in New Jersey and Washington state over paid family leave — suggests that any upcoming attempt to pass federal mandates will meet with strong opposition as long as the economy is ailing.

Some workplace experts are urging apprehensive employers to consider cost-neutral or cost-saving options that would provide employees with more schedule flexibility so they can better tend to family needs.

“If a company sees its revenue down, it could start with voluntary part-time work — people reducing their hours to 90 percent, 80 percent,” said Kathleen Christensen, who directs the Workplace, Work Force and Working Families program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

During the presidential campaign, Michelle Obama often talked about her personal interest in improving conditions for working families. She was a high-level administrator at the University of Chicago Medical Center before taking leave to help her husband’s campaign, and has identified work/family balance as one of a handful of issues atop her priority list as first lady.

Ellen Bravo, the Milwaukee author/activist, hopes to see other signals from the Obama White House.

“I hope the administration has more people who have a real family life — maybe have a high-level office that’s a job share,” Bravo said. “They’d be making a statement that you don’t have to give up your family to be in this administration.”