Why Should the U.S. Have Paid Family Leave?

July 28, 2018
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Healthy families have inherent God-given value. Honoring the image of God and the inherent dignity of all people requires honoring all families. However, the demands of work, the need for stable income, and a culture that fails to uphold the family as the cornerstone of community has left American families stressed and struggling. There are mothers and fathers who cannot spend time with their children during critical seasons, such as the birth or adoption of a child. Many sons and daughters are struggling to honor their aging parents. Spouses worry they will not be able to find time to care for each other during periods of serious illness. In his article “Why Doesn’t the U.S. Mandate Paid Leave?“, Donald Roth rightly notes that any successful approach to protecting and ensuring family time must be instituted and developed within our distinct American context. In addition to this observation, we as Christians must ground our approach to paid family leave in God’s intent for family flourishing. With such a principled approach, Christians can begin to engage in the national conversation taking place: should the United States have paid family leave? And if the answer is yes, then what is the best way forward in our American context?

Families are Foundational

Family is the most basic human institution. It can be best described as a community of covenant love and trust, binding its members back to grandparents, ahead to grandchildren, and out to extended family and kinship by affinity. Indeed, the institution of the family is woven into the fabric of creation and is fundamental to the human experience as God intended. Families have an honorable, God-given calling to contribute to the flourishing of society by building up and supporting current and future generations of citizens, workers, and culture-shapers. God’s creation continues to unfold within the fabric of families, building up disciples who will, in turn, contribute to the development of families and communities. Within families, children learn what it is to be a member of a family, a neighborhood, and a community. In our families, we learn to care for one another well and learn how to extend that care to our neighbors.

Healthy families contribute directly to the health of their members. Children receive the nurture and care in families that lay a foundation for the rest of their lives. Lifelong health is built upon positive early childhood experiences with parents. Safety, security, and positive interactions need not be remembered to be imprinted on the body. Positive early experiences allow the brain to build a strong architecture that facilitates future wellness, learning, and skill development. In addition to families being crucial during early childhood, family care is also a part of family life through seasons of illness, chronic injury, and aging. From birth to death, families are designed with the intention of providing direct support and care for its members.

Paid family leave has risen as a popular policy solution to protect the family for good reason: God’s calling for all families to care for their members requires time. Paid family leave is a way to protect, enable, and honor crucial family time and ensure all families have the freedom to faithfully respond to God’s calling, especially during key transitions in family development.

Work in its Proper Place

The tension between work and family life is very real for most Americans. The first Industrial Revolution of the late 16th and early 17th centuries moved work from being based in the home out to factories. The Digital Revolution of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has merged those spheres of life again, but this time in a way that blurs the boundaries of out-of-home-based work and family time. As a result, these two significant areas of life are often experienced in conflict rather than in the complementary manner that God intended.

Work has a good purpose and is a valuable use of time. Through work—all types of work—we continue the developing and unfolding of creation through the shaping of culture, government, and the marketplace. We express our creativity, we care for our families, we serve our neighbors, and we learn more about God by learning more about His created world. However, God places limits on work by also calling all of creation to a time set apart from work to rest and worship. The Sabbath reminds us that God calls us to more roles in creation than that of only a worker. We are designed to be part of healthy families as much as we are designed to worship and work. However, contributing to the flourishing of our families, especially during critical seasons, requires time.

Current Context

In the current policy landscape, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is the single piece of federal legislation that broadly protects workers’ ability to take time away from work to attend to family responsibilities. FMLA promises eligible workers 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave a year for specific family and medical reasons. To be eligible, workers must have worked for a covered employer for at least 12 months prior to the necessary leave. “Covered employers” are public employers and private companies with 50 or more employees.

FMLA ultimately fails to adequately support all families. In his article, Roth cites two figures: 60% of the workforce is eligible for FMLA, and 93% of the United States workforce has access to at least 12 weeks of maternity leave. These figures are provided to demonstrate a contrast between law and practice. He suggests that although FMLA covers only 60% of the workforce, employers voluntarily protect time off for maternity leave. However, this is an inaccurate reading of the data. The finding that 93% of the workforce has at least 12 weeks of maternity leave is data drawn from a survey of workplaces employing 50 or more people—the very “covered employers” that fall within FMLA’s mandate. Thus, the 93% figure is evidence of workplace compliance with FMLA. The data does not address the population of the workforce employed by smaller employers.

The FMLA creates large gaps in access for workers—leaving newly hired workers and workers at small employers unprotected—and the leave is unpaid. For workers in financially stressed families, access to unpaid leave is not enough. Financially stressed families are families surviving paycheck to paycheck, or families that have not been able to build savings and assets to support the family in the absence of a traditional income. Young families whose parents recently graduated from school and are new to the workforce need more support than what FMLA offers, as do low-wage workers. FMLA or any type of unpaid family leave cannot support families with limited economic freedom in a season of critical family care; they need paid family leave.

Honoring All Families

Of the portion of the workforce with access to maternity leave through FMLA, a little over half (58%) have access to some wage replacement. Of those new mothers who receive a partial wage replacement, pay tends to be, as Roth notes, funneled through short-term and temporary disability insurance programs. Short-term and temporary disability insurance programs provide a partial wage replacement, generally between 40-60% of the worker’s salary, for a standard duration of about six weeks, depending on the policy. However, low-wage workers, such as workers in service and construction industries, are the workers who both need the most support during seasons of family care and are least likely to have access to paid family leave or the short-term disability policies that can help fund unpaid maternity leave.

The birth, adoption, or fostering of a new child is an important event for families and is one of the seasons of family life that is the focus of most paid family leave conversations. To welcome a child into the world by birth is a physically taxing experience. Most women require at least six weeks to physically recover from childbirth. To welcome a child into one’s family by birth or adoption also requires emotional bonding time as well as adjustment in the routines and rhythms of family life. For families welcoming an infant, there are well-documented developmental milestones. Between 8 to 12 weeks, infants begin to recognize faces, smiles, and respond to sound. At 16 weeks, infants begin to mimic facial movements, express emotions, babble, and hold up their heads. And, throughout early childhood, stable relationships and responsive interactions are important for healthy development. Thus, although many parents receive some time off from work to attend to their families during the birth of a child, many receive far less than what is medically recommended for the health of children and mothers.

This time of rapid development is astounding, and it is unsurprising that over half of parents who have access to and take family leave to care for a new child wish they had more time. However, when paid leave is not available or when the partial wage replacement of the policy is not adequate to meet the household’s financial needs, then parents feel trapped by their choices. If they choose to be present for this critical season of care, they risk their family’s financial stability. An estimated 20% of mothers in the United States return to work only a few weeks, sometimes even days, after giving birth. Lower-income households who access family leave and rightly attempt to prioritize family care report taking on debt, accessing public assistance, or putting off paying bills in order to cover the lost income. Ultimately, families with low-wage working parents, who have the same calling to family care responsibilities as all parents, are especially disadvantaged with a lack of access to the supports that are available to workers in higher-wage positions.

 Policy Response

Both government and employers have a role in creating conditions in which families can flourish. Government’s guiding responsibility is to seek public justice by ensuring society’s institutions, including the spheres of family and business, have the ability and freedom to fully flourish as God intended. Employers have a responsibility, in addition to doing business well, to treat all of their workers with dignity. This includes respecting their family time. Government has the unique capacity in its good, limited role to help businesses support workers and their families so that both can flourish.

Paid family leave can honor the roles and responsibilities of families and businesses, without resulting in the overreach of government. A publicly coordinated fund, like the one under development in Washington state, could address the current gaps in private coverage by providing benefits for all workers with minimal impact on employers.

There are two primary policy approaches being discussed in Congress. One proposed plan, the FAMILY Act, builds upon America’s public and private temporary disability insurance programs and FMLA to protect time for family care while providing families with a wage replacement. The program proposed by the bill would institute a new payroll tax to fund the program. The second proposal, based on a model proposed by the Independent Women’s Forum, allows workers to access their Social Security benefits for parental leave, and delay receiving Social Security benefits at an older age. This proposal, not yet a bill, requires workers to delay their retirement in order to take paid leave. For this reason, it is criticized as not protecting large families and workers with physically demanding jobs.

Christians have a responsibility to participate in the shaping of culture. This includes advocating for workplaces and policies that impact families. Christians advocating for paid family leave, whether in a specific workplace or as a public policy, should honor the unique roles of businesses, government, and family. Any paid family leave policy should build on core principles, including:

  • Empower all families to fulfill their responsibilities,
  • Value work and all workers,
  • Address the current gaps in private coverage for low-wage workers,
  • Steward financial resources well, and
  • Be feasible and impose as little burden as possible for small employers and nonprofits.

Pursuing Paid Leave for All Families

As Roth acknowledges, the way forward on the issue of paid family leave is to create solutions that respond to our distinct American context. Roth set forth a few ideas for what this might look like in his article, and policy-makers and advocates continue to engage in conversation around different models. Because Americans mostly agree that families should have access to some sort of paid family leave, we have a starting point, and we are not without ideas for making it a reality. As Christians in this conversation, we have the opportunity to help shape our culture to better honor all families by participating in these conversations.

We must ground this policy conversation in a framework of family flourishing: what is God’s intent for families? What are the right roles, responsibilities, and relationships of the social institutions involved? And, what does justice require for all families to thrive? In an effort to wrestle with these relevant theological and political questions, the Center for Public Justice has launched Families Valued, an initiative promoting public policies and family-supportive workplaces so all families can flourish. The initiative also recently published a new report that explores these issues related to time-stress on families today.

With current conversations around the country taking place, from business boardrooms to Capitol Hill, our present moment offers an opportunity to work together on public and workplace policies that can that honor God’s call to both work and family life. As economies and cultures change, the steps necessary to fully uphold families are neither simple nor easy. However, with careful research, discernment, and advocacy we can promote a cultural and legal norm of respect for both the employment and family care responsibilities held by all workers.

About the Author
  • Chelsea Maxwell is Program Associate for the Center for Public Justice Families Valued initiative, an initiative promoting policies that support and honor God's call to both work and family life. Chelsea holds a Bachelor's of Social Work from Dordt and Master's of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. She is a former intern of CPJ's Christians Investing in Education initiative and was a Shared Justice Policy Fellow for What Justice Requires: Paid Family Leave. A native of Iowa, she now lives in the District of Columbia.

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