Will President Obama’s working families proposals work?

January 23, 2015

Profile of parents holding child and pushing a baby stroller

Pamela Joshi, PhD'01, is a senior research scientist and the associate director of the Institute for Child, Youth, and Family Policy (ICYFP). Alison Earle is a visiting scholar with ICYFP. They talked with the Heller communications team following President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. 

Q: The president highlighted several social policy issues in his State of the Union address, including paid leave for workers. Can you describe the scope of this issue?

A: President Obama noted what many Americans already know: the fundamental structure of work has not kept pace with the changing American family. Today, most mothers and fathers work outside of the home, yet many employers do not provide the flexibility and, in some cases, the resources needed to successfully fulfill obligations at home and on the job. Our research shows that 92% of parents are working—therefore these issues affect the majority of American families.

U.S. social policies have not kept pace with the new economic realities of working families either. The only federal policy to specifically address taking time off from work to deal with serious health issues is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees job-protected unpaid leave to about 60% of the workforce. FMLA leave is unpaid, and therefore unaffordable for many working middle- and lower-income families. Data posted on our website, www.diversitydatakids.org, shows that FMLA is especially unaffordable for black and Hispanic working parents even when they are eligible.

Q: If the president is able to gain congressional support on addressing paid leave--and that's a big if--what would the potential impact be? What would success look like?

A: President Obama put forth a set of proposals to enhance working families' ability to balance their families and jobs. First, he urged legislators in Congress, states and cities to ensure that all working adults be allowed to earn up to seven days of paid sick time to be used when they or a family member are sick, for obtaining preventive care or for addressing issues related to domestic violence.

In today’s private sector, 43 million private-sector workers are without any paid sick leave. As a result, workers go to work sick, putting their coworkers and customers at risk of illness, and costing their employers and our economy millions in lost productivity and potential job loss. Connecticut was the first state to pass paid sick leave legislation two years ago, and the experience of employers there seems positive. A recent survey found that three-quarters of Connecticut employers reported little or no negative effects of the new law on their bottom line as some had feared. Successful impact of the proposed changes would increase the number of workers who can access sick days when needed, and reduce the illnesses and health issues brought to work. In addition, successful implementation of the changes would include monitoring the effectiveness of the expansions in terms of access, health issues, and costs.

The President's second proposal addresses another important issue: the lack of guaranteed paid time off for parents when a child is born. The benefits of paid maternal leave are numerous and well documented, yet the United States is the only developed country that has no national policy allowing women paid time off around childbirth. The president's proposal to provide states with funds to develop paid family and medical leave programs would begin to address two of the key limitations of the FMLA by increasing eligibility and providing some pay or wage replacement to workers on leave. Currently, only California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have enacted paid leave for the birth of a child or a significant health issue.  

Q: What challenges do you think the president faces on this issue going forward?

A: The biggest challenge is Congressional inaction. Despite numerous bills that have been introduced to bolster support for working families, our Congress has not been able to pass legislation whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans. What’s interesting is that many federal agencies recognize the importance of increasing family leave. In 2008, the Department of Defense included a provision in the budget to extend FMLA coverage to families affected by military deployment. States have been much more effective than Congress at passing paid family leave and earned sick day laws. These efforts will be strengthened by the Department of Labor’s paid leave feasibility grants, which support research to advance the development or implementation of a state paid leave program.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add?

A: The consequences of not having time off from work to attend to health issues affect everyone—not just individual families. It affects the spread of illnesses in schools and early childhood centers and from coworker to coworker, and can lead to haggard parents who may be forced to return to work earlier than makes sense for their families’ health. Work and family issues can have multiplier effects that cut across families, workplaces, and community institutions, leading to a potential decrease in productivity. Expanding paid leave policies can help working families take leave from work to safely address their health issues and, at the same time, reduce racial/ethnic and income disparities in leave-taking for workers who could not previously afford to take unpaid leave.

As researchers who have been studying these issues for a number of years, it was fulfilling to hear a State of the Union that not only recognizes the magnitude and breadth of work and family issues, but calls on the executive branch and Congress to support effective policies to address them.