'Work and Family Month' Shouldn't Need to Exist

During the floor debate for Rhode Island's paid family leave legislation -- which would ultimately pass both houses and would be signed into law on July 11 by Governor Chafee -- State Representative Grace Diaz had this to say:

"Most people work to support their families. In difficult times, we need to be with the ones we love. Families come first."

No one will deny that we, as a nation, buy into this value. Family comes first. Every worker has a life and loved ones beyond the workplace. Attending to their needs requires time, and it requires money.

We overwhelmingly believe these things -- from our CEOs to our local leaders to our elected representatives. And yet, the actual policies on our books as a nation don't reflect those values.

So this October, as we celebrate "work and family month" -- nationally recognized by members of Congress, businesses, academic institutions, advocacy groups, and anyone who wants to succeed both at home and on the job -- here's a somewhat controversial statement: I'd like us to get to a place where "work and family month" doesn't need to exist.

I'd like us to get to a place where every month is "work and family month," because policies that help families succeed at both work and home are the law of the land. Because truly, who wants to choose? Too often people are forced to choose and that is why nearly half of all parents have turned down a job offer because of the sacrifice it would have meant for their family. What business owner or investor wants to lose talented workers because they forced them to choose?

The challenge is removing the stigma from those who sometimes put their family first, who have to take their child or aging parent to a doctor's appointment, or attend a parent-teacher conference. Programs that help people balance work and family are no longer "nice to haves" for a few workers, but are increasingly important, as most kids live in families where all parents work and most workers have personal responsibilities beyond their job.

The challenge is rolling back misconceptions about increased costs without recognizing the benefits in terms of recruitment, morale, and retention. The challenge is making it clear to every lawmaker, business owner, and state leader that the livelihoods of our workers, the strength of our businesses, and our competitiveness on the world stage stands to improve if we choose to give our workplace policies a national update.

Let's look at California for a moment. When the state enacted paid family leave back in 2002, businesses were initially concerned. The worry was that the law would create an administrative burden, would increase costs, and minimize their ability to expand hiring.

Several years later, what ended up happening? In a recent survey, more than 90 percent reported no negative effect or a positive effect of the law on profitability, turnover, productivity, and morale. And women with young kids are working more today because of this benefit, which helps both families and the economy.

Still more studies have shown that flexibility can lead to improved productivity and is correlated with well-managed businesses. Research shows these policies can help to recruit talented workers, lower worker turnover, and boost morale, worker productivity, and profits. In fact, studies show that investors see these kinds of workplace updates as good for profitability as stock prices tend to increase on the news of a business's new family-friendly policies.

And here's the thing: At a time when more than one in five kids under five with a working mom has a dad as a primary caregiver, these policies don't just help women succeed. They help the whole family succeed.

Equal pay means female breadwinners are bringing home more. If there are dual breadwinners in a given family, everyone benefits. Paid leave and workplace flexibility help both moms and dads better balance the competing demands of work and caregiving.

Real, meaningful policy change -- as is always the case -- has come slowly, in fits and starts. Connecticut and California, along with a handful of municipalities in other states require private-sector employers to provide paid sick leave. And a handful of states -- fewer than 10 -- allow parents to take a limited number of hours for parents to attend their children's activities. Only three states -- California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island -- offer paid family and medical leave.

Last month, the Department of Labor awarded $500,000 in grants to assist Massachusetts, Montana, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia in funding feasibility studies on paid leave. Those studies will inform the development or implementation of paid family and medical leave programs at the state level -- seeking solutions that work for their unique communities.

But the fact is that we're already behind, and we simply need to move faster to catch up.

I'm not exaggerating or being dramatic when I talk about "the world stage," by the way. Because when we limit the career options of our most talented workers, we're failing to build an economy that can operate at its full potential. As the only developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave, and one of the few that does not guarantee workers paid sick leave, we're jeopardizing our ability to keep up with other nations. If we want to keep making the sort of economic progress we've seen in the past century, we've got to reshape today's and tomorrow's workplaces. Other countries have already figured this out.

Australia offers up to 18 weeks of parental leave with financial support. Brazil gives its women 120 days of maternity leave at full pay. Japan offers up to 14 weeks of paid maternity leave with slightly reduced salary and benefits. In fact, Prime Minister Abe has made "womenomics" -- or, increasing their GDP by boosting female labor force participation -- a key item on his governing agenda and realizes that increasing policies to support working families needs to be a key part of that agenda.

A couple months ago, the White House held its very first "Working Families Summit." In it, we brought together business leaders, educators, researchers, advocates, members of Congress, state and local government representatives, workers, and really anyone who wanted to participate, to talk about how we make sure the economy is working as well as it can for American families.

I'd like to see us arrive at a place where "Summits" dedicated to figuring this out are no longer necessary. When the common-sense, cultural statements we know to be true at home also ring true in our workplaces.

Because we can't say we stand for family values when so many women in the United States have to jeopardize their financial security just to take a few weeks off from work after giving birth.

We can't say we're for middle-class stability when a man has to sacrifice his economic security to care for his sick mother or wife.

Call it "womenomics," call it the "women's economic agenda," call it whatever you like. But don't make the mistake of assuming that women are the only ones who stand to benefit from these policies. Because by making our workplaces make sense for the long-standing realities of today's working women, men, and their families, our entire economy will benefit.

And the sooner we figure this out, the sooner each and every one of us will feel those benefits.

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