The economy typically requires workers to compartmentalize their work and family lives. But workers who are raising a child or caring for a family member know their responsibilities are not put on hold between the hours of 9 and 5.
Slowly, real efforts to transform the false work-family dichotomy are emerging, both through legislation as well as through employer initiatives. Programs like paid family leave and on-site child care can help working families over the long haul—yet it is rare to find either offered to low-wage workers in this country.
Last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act) in the Senate, while Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) announced the legislation in the House. The bill would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of partially paid time off to care for families, children, or themselves. Thirty-one other countries currently offer paid leave, but in the United States only three states—New Jersey, California, and Rhode Island—offer the program.
California’s program, which was the first in the nation and has been around for more than a decade, has been shown to economically aid those in lower income brackets.
Despite the unyielding conservative politics in the House, advocates are determined to move forward with the FAMILY Act now. “America’s families are facing significant challenges when it comes to culture and policy in our nation’s workplaces, and there are real consequences for our economy,” Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families, told RH Reality Check. “Voters across the political spectrum, business owners, and 415 organizations nationwide agree. It’s a win-win, and there’s simply no reasonable excuse for lawmakers to delay consideration.”
Some companies—mostly the ones that offer a competitive salary—have already taken steps to strengthen their family leave policies: Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer recently doubled her employees’ paternity and maternity leave, while Google expanded its paid leave program to address attrition among women employees. General Motors, which made headlines recently for hiring its first woman CEO, offers six to eight weeks of paid leave for expectant mothers.
But in the aggregate, only 11 percent of private-sector workers have access to paid leave.
If the FAMILY Act were enacted, it alone would not be a panacea for many working families with care needs. Domestic work, often taken on by women, doesn’t stop after 12 weeks. A family’s needs are unrelenting, often requiring decades of unpaid labor to care for a child or an ill family member.
Paid leave, like most family policy, must work inside the confines of the economy—thus it on some level reinforces the separation of work and family life.
As a supplement to paid leave programs, work-supported family care is one long-term solution for many families. But such options are extremely rare, particularly in low-wage sectors. As of 2012, a mere 7 percent of companies nationwide provided on-site child care—and this percentage hasn’t increased since 2005.
The absence of paid leave and on-site child-care options disproportionately affects individuals working in low-wage sectors. As I wrote for RH Reality Check last month, 1.2 million restaurant workers are single mothers. The restaurant sector is also one of the lowest paying and fastest growing sectors in the nation.
According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center, 40 percent of women working in restaurants have unpredictable schedules, and one in five women restaurant workers had actually lost their child-care support because of changing work schedules. Child-care subsidies for low-wage workers have been sliding.
But like paid leave, the higher up the income or opportunity ladder you go, the more likely you are to find work-supported options for care. Among the “best companies” to work for in 2012, one-third did offer some type of child care.
But some excellent models for on-site care are too pricey for people who work in low-income positions. A new venture in San Francisco called NextKids is finding ways to offer child-care options for parents. NextKids, which opened in July, offers a workspace for parents, located right alongside child-care space—the philosophy being that work and family are symbiotic, not distinct, parts of life. The group is currently serving 22 Bay Area families who work in various fields, including photography, graphic design, medical engineering, tutoring, and app development. In other words, it is a model that relatively well-paid freelancers can take advantage of.
Unfortunately, it is not a model that is likely to be adopted by low-wage employers any time soon. NextKids founder Diana Rothschild acknowledges that NextKids really only works for people of means. “For a model at a lower price point to work, I think you’d need to hire less qualified teachers, use a parent co-op model where parents take turns taking care of the kids (to dramatically reduce labor costs), or have access to government programs or grants,” Rothschild told RH Reality Check in an email. “I don’t know of any companies that offer this type of model, but it’s definitely needed in the world.”
The fastest growing fields in the United States, such as the restaurant sector, are simply not ones that would offer on-site care, nor are they offering increased child-care subsidies. The Urban Institute has noted this absence of both paid leave and child-care support in low-paying sectors. From a 2007 study by the institute:
[T]he lack of flexibility in lower-paid jobs (no paid leave, the inability to take time off to attend to a family crisis) may reduce job stability and further reduce the incomes of low-income working families with children. Efforts to increase child care affordability and availability and efforts aimed to encourage or mandate more workplace flexibility on the part of employers may provide considerable benefits to low income working families with children.
Sen. Gillibrand has made family policy a lynchpin of her agenda. As the FAMILY Act begins its journey through Congress, it offers a chance to broaden the conversation from the false work-family dichotomy to one that addresses ways the economy can meet the needs of workers’ real lives.