Paid Leave And Parity For Part-Time Workers

May 08, 2009 | Forbes |  Link to article

This year, I say we give moms, and all caregivers, something more lasting than flowers: the economic security they need to care for themselves and their loved ones all year.

With more women in the paid workforce and hours on the rise for men and women, families are feeling the strain of balancing work and family responsibilities. Today, over 70% of children live in households with a working single parent or two parents who work. This means most families do not have a stay-at-home parent or anyone available to provide care if someone gets sick.

Low-income workers, especially single mothers, are particularly hard hit by the conflicting pressures of work and family, as their jobs are most likely to lack paid leave, benefits and any flexibility. As a result, sometimes workers simply can't be there when their families need them the most.

The swine flu crisis is a glaring example of this and why workers need a minimum number of paid sick days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to advise staying home from work and keeping children home from school with any flu-like symptoms. However, missing work is not an option for millions of workers--about half of our workforce--who lack even a single day of paid sick time.

According to the Kaiser Family Fund, half of all working mothers must stay home at some point in a year when their child is sick, but half of all those mothers--and two-thirds of low-income mothers--receive no pay when they do so. For families at the lower end of the economic spectrum, even one day's loss of pay can be devastating. As a result, workers and children show up for work and school sick, spreading disease among coworkers and school children because they have no choice.

The lack of paid sick days is also bad for business. The Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) estimates the cost to our economy of workers lacking paid sick days at $180 billion a year due largely to increased turnover, low productivity and contagion.

Moms and other workers with care-giving responsibilities also need paid family leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees workers 12 weeks unpaid leave to care for a newborn or adopted child, a seriously ill family member or to recover from illness or injury themselves. However, almost half of eligible workers don't use the benefit, and nearly 80% say it's because they can't afford to take unpaid leave. Also, the FMLA applies only when an employee has worked for a company for at least 12 months and for more than 1,250 hours in the preceding 12 months. As a result of these restrictions, many low-income and part-time workers fail to qualify.

Now more than ever, employees also need protection from family responsibilities discrimination. Every day, workers are fired, demoted, not promoted or denied other employment benefits due to their family responsibilities. Workers simply cannot afford economic harm, especially in these days, because of their obligations to provide care for family members, whether children or aging parents.

Finally, as the number of part-time workers continues to rise as a result of the recession, it's more critical than ever that they have parity in pay and benefits, especially health insurance.

Many workers, particularly women, turn to part-time work as a strategy for coping with their significant care-giving responsibilities. Unfortunately, they pay dearly for this flexibility. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), part-time workers earn 20% less per hour than full-time workers with the same level of education and experience, and they have fewer benefits (such as health insurance or pensions) and limited advancement opportunities.

While balancing work and family has become an urgent challenge for working families, our laws have simply not kept up. We cannot continue to rely on private solutions to our work/life problems. We need to expand and support paid leave for working families, protect workers from discrimination based on family responsibilities and promote parity for part-time workers. That's a Mother's Day present mom could really use.

Dina Bakst is co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance: The Work & Family Legal Center

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