When it comes to family-friendly work policies, the U.S. lags far behind other nations. President Obama highlighted this fact at the White House Summit on Working Families on June 23.
Here are some of the top issues raised that affect how American workers and families experience life on and off the job:
Obama focused the majority of his comments on paid maternity leave, noting that the U.S. stands alone in the industrialized world in failing to offer paid leave for moms of newborns. The president noted that the fact many women “can’t even get a paid day off to give birth” sets a “low bar.”
According to the 2014 National Study of Employers conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, the Families and Work Institute and those organizations' joint project, When Work Works, providing 12 weeks of unpaid leave continues to be the norm for many employers across diverse industries. While some individual companies do offer paid leave to attract and retain talent – and a few states, including California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have created statewide benefits – only unpaid leave is mandatory nationally, thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.
According to the president, paid leave benefits for parents and other caregivers are “not frills” but “basic needs.” He added that families who do everything right are held back by continued failure by the government and employers to appropriately address these issues. Recently, the president approved legislation introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. that would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave through a Social Security Administration fund. Employee and employer contributions of 0.2 percent of wages – about two cents of every $10 – would pay for this fund.
Workplace flexibility policies are another area where American workers are held back from better balancing the demands of parenting with business needs. While the NSE study shows improvement in certain types of flexibility since 2008, such as companies occasionally allowing employees to work from home, other forms of flex time haven't gained much ground.
According to the study, the least common forms of flexible work arrangements include job sharing, taking a sabbatical, receiving special consideration after returning to work after an extended break and working part of the year. The study also found employers with fewer than 99 employees were more likely to offer flex arrangements than larger employers.
On the day of the summit, President Obama signed a memorandum that requires federal agencies to both address flexible work schedules, and provide employees with the right to request such schedules. The president also supports passage of work-and-family-related legislation, including the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act.
The president emphasized the need for overall improvement in U.S. workplace policies, noting the gender-based nature of much of the dialogue that surrounds these issues. For example, while fathers also face struggles over work-family balance, men are often seen as more committed to their job, even when they leave early for events related to parenting.
The NSE reveals that the maximum length of parental leave for new dads – as well as for adoptive parents and employees caring for family members with illnesses – has actually declined since 2008. Disability pay has also declined, with employers significantly less likely to provide full salary during a leave for disability related to maternity. Only 58 percent of employers provide any disability pay – among those, only 9 percent currently offer employees full pay, which is down from 16 percent six years ago.
What’s more, the study found employers are providing less support for flexibility – and for diversity and inclusion programs – than they did in 2008. Fewer employers today are considering how well supervisors are managing flexible job arrangements when doing performance reviews and making decisions that affect compensation. There are also fewer employers providing women with management and leadership programs or career counseling than there were in 2008.
Clearly, both government and employer policies need to go much further to protect working women and families – and to keep the American workplace moving ahead instead of backsliding.
Robin Madell has spent more than two decades as a corporate writer, journalist and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, health, finance, technology and public-interest issues. She serves as a copywriter, speechwriter and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries. Madell has interviewed more than 200 thought leaders around the globe, winning 20 awards for editorial excellence. She served on the board of directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association in New York and San Francisco. Madell is the author of “Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30” and co-author of “The Strong Principles: Career Success.” You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.