After six exhausting, sleepless weeks of unpaid maternity leave, stressed out as she scraped up savings for diapers, birthing center co-pay fees and other bills, Jeannine Sato left her newborn daughter at home and dragged herself back to her desk.
“I worked at a reputable organization that was supposed to be family friendly,” said Sato. “Once I learned I was pregnant, I drafted a multi-page document about how I was going to cover my job responsibilities during my 12 weeks of maternity leave, which I assumed was covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). I didn’t anticipate any problems.”
Instead Sato’s boss told her that she was “too essential” to be gone for 12 weeks and could instead take six. That leave would be also be unpaid, so she would have to use all of her accumulated vacation time and sick leave, because the company had found a loophole to avoid extending FMLA to its employees.
Sato quit seven months later and began a job at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy. When her son was born, Sato was given 12 weeks maternity leave including three weeks of pay after using up her sick leave and vacation time. They even allowed her to telecommute to make the transition back to work easier.
On July 30, days before Congress left Washington for a recess, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Subcommittee on Children and Families heard from Sato and other witnesses during a hearing on paid family leave and the benefits they provide for both businesses and working families.
The FMLA guarantees some workers in the U.S. 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave, but many Americans can’t afford to take that much time off without pay. Only about 12 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through their employers, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. Fewer than 40 percent have access to personal medical leave through employer-provided short term disability insurance.
According to a survey by the Department of Labor, the percentage of workers who needed but did not take FMLA doubled between 2000 and 2012.
“Particularly with single moms...working in service occupations and other lower wage jobs, those folks are leaving their children with a sort of rotating cast of caregivers” because they have no paid leave benefit, explained Victoria S. Shabo, Vice President of the National Partnership for Women & Families.
Many working parents can’t afford to stay home to care for sick children or take time off when they themselves are ill.
“We just didn’t understand the idea that there would be a business case for requiring someone to show up for work when they’re sick,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). “Not only is it the right thing to do to allow people to have a minimal amount of days in which they are paid to stay home when they’re sick, but it’s also a pretty good business practice to make sure that you don’t have really sick people showing up and making everyone else sick.”
One of the roadblocks preventing paid family leave from becoming the rule rather than the exception is that employers often fear that workers will abuse the benefit. That’s what legislators in Connecticut heard when they became the first state to enact a statewide paid sick leave policy in 2011.
“One of the claims that was made was that once you allowed for people to take a sick leave, they were going to take it regardless of whether they needed it or not,” said Sen. Murphy. “We have enough data in Connecticut to tell us that actually isn’t the case. Two-thirds of employers report that there was virtually no expansion of the number of days individuals were out sick, having a law in place now that pays them for it versus the prior situation which if you were home sick you didn’t get paid.”
What’s good for families turns out to be good for business.
“Research has shown that when employers offer paid family leave, employee morale and productivity increases and turnover and retraining costs decrease,” said HELP subcommittee Chairwoman Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC).
“People work harder, longer and in a more committed way when they are trusted,” said Kevin Trapani, a witness at the hearing and the President and CEO of The Redwoods Group, an insurance and consulting firm in Morrisville, North Carolina that has adopted paid family leave.
Paid sick leave also results in benefits that reach far beyond the wallet.
Taking paid leave for 10 weeks was predicted to decrease infant mortality by as much as 4 percent, according to the research published in The Future of Children. Research also shows that when fathers take paternity leave, they’re more likely to be involved in their children’s lives nine months later.
Proposals for national paid sick leave policies are being considered in both the U.S. House and Senate. Only Democrats from the Committee attended the hearing.
Watch the hearing here.