The Star-Gazette

Family Policies Can Be Unfriendly

The Star-Gazette — Monday, July 31, 2006

By Kathleen Costello

Having a baby shouldn't break the bank.

But sometimes that's exactly what happens when a parent takes time off from work to care for a newborn or newly adopted child.

Paid family leave is not required by federal law. Therefore, many parents use their accrued employee vacation or sick time for part of their maternity/paternity leave. A couple of other weeks might be supplemented by meager short-term disability checks, and then any additional time off would be completely unpaid.

Since we're used to this scenario, it sounds luxurious to even consider paid family leave, but here's a reality check: We live in one of the only industrialized nations that doesn't offer it.

A Harvard University study surveyed 168 countries to find that 163 of them had some form of paid maternity leave, except for the United States, Australia, Swaziland, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea.

We are fortunate to have The Family and Medical Leave Act, which President Clinton signed into legislation in 1993. But although this act guarantees that employers will hold a job for 12 weeks while someone cares for a new child or an ill family member, it doesn't provide the means for that person to take that time off.

New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney is trying to make a change. She is among a group of House members sponsoring a proposed bill that grants six weeks of paid leave for federal workers for an adoption or a child's birth. However, this bill is unlikely to pass in Congress, and I'm not sure of its repercussions, such as its effects on taxpayers. But it would certainly set a standard for more family-friendly policies.

Progress is more likely to happen at the state level, especially after a policy passed in California in 2004. California's Paid Family Leave Law guarantees employees 55 percent of their salaries for six weeks, paid from a fund that employees – not employers – pay into. Employees can use this fund to care for either a sick family member or a new child.

Five states – New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Hawaii and California – require employers to have temporary disability programs, which pay benefits if the pregnancy is defined by a doctor as a disability. This is a start, but these disability checks are not enough to live on. (Trust me!)

Some opponents of paid family leave argue that workers should save their vacation and sick time, and that this should sustain them financially when taking extended time off from work. However, not all employers have policies that allow their workers to carry over vacation or sick time from year to year. Often, employees need to "use it or lose it," within a year, which might leave them with two weeks' worth of accrued time.

Many of our country's policies do not support two-income households. Most families with two working parents need two incomes; not many middle- or lower-class parents work for the sheer fun of it.

Federally mandated paid family leave is not likely to happen anytime soon. But if more states would follow California's lead, then people might not be forced to choose between caring for a child and paying the bills.

That would truly be family friendly.

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