A break for working parents

By Michelle Chen May 07, 2009

When sickness and economic hardship hit a family at once, crisis isn’t far behind. An employer might help by letting parents take time off to care for ill loved ones or newborns without taking it out of their paychecks. But although federal law allows many workers time off in such circumstances, a large portion of the workforce isn’t eligible for unpaid leave, let alone paid leave. So childbirth or sudden illness could force a parent to lose income or even her whole career, and amid a recession and a broken healthcare system, that’s not a good place for a family to be. A small step forward would be legislation that gives federal employees four weeks of paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child (an enhancement of the 12 weeks of unpaid leave generally offered to employees meeting certain federal guidelines). Since much of the industrialized world offers workers broad, flexible leave benefits, this might seem like a no-brainer. Unless you’re Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who waved before his fellow lawmakers a new twist on a beloved Reagan-era meme: the federally employed parent who “could have one adoption or one foster child per year,” so that “every year the husband and wife… would take four weeks off with pay.” Beware the Paid Leave Queen, bilking hardworking taxpayers one baby at a time. But there is a real connection between welfare and paid leave. According to research published in 2004 by the Urban Institute, working parents receiving welfare were far less likely to have access to maternity or paternity leave, compared to those who were never on welfare, and had much less access to any paid leave. Similar patterns were seen in poor households and poor single-parent families.

“More than half of poor workers, working welfare recipients, and workers who recently left welfare cannot take paid leave from their jobs. When they do have access to paid leave, these workers are more likely than others to have only one workweek of leave or less. These economically vulnerable workers probably do not have sufficient savings to cover lost wages if they need to take some time away from work. Further, without leave available, these working parents risk losing their jobs if they need to stay home with a sick child.”

Paid leave, in sum, is another one of the privileges commonly denied to workers at the margins of the economydisproportionately people of color, and often single parents who are hardest pressed to find time and resources to care for young children. So it’s odd, as Marianne Mollman of Human Rights Watch points out, that:

“all the talk about family values in the United States doesn’t seem to translate into actual legal protection, and that lawmakers in other countries–rich and poor–seem to have a much better grasp of what it really takes to be a good parent: time and support.”

After years of demonizing shiftless welfare moms, Washington could promote family values in a way that works: by not forcing parents to choose between the value of a job and the value of their children. Image: CT Working Families