The Gift that Keeps Giving: Business Support for Paid Family Leave Is Nation’s Gain

By Liz Ben-Ishai

This holiday season, as we celebrate time with friends and family, many of us try to turn our thoughts away from work and all those unread emails, files stacked high on a desk, or long shifts at the cash register or waiting tables. But in the U.S., our jobs are intimately tied to our ability to spend time with family, in good times and bad. Most workers depend entirely on their employers’ discretion when it comes to time–particularly paid time–away from work, whether they need that time to raise a glass of egg nog, or engage in less celebratory but equally important activities, such as caring for an aging parent or recovering from serious illness of one’s own. In this country, with no federal law, private employers determine whether and how workers can earn paid sick, medical, or family leave, or vacation time, leaving it entirely up to employers to determine their workers’–and their families’–fate.

Some employers are doing the right thing by guaranteeing workers the ability to earn paid time to care for themselves and their families.  However, for the most part, leaving these decisions to employer discretion has left millions without the protections they need. Fortunately, some employers are stepping up to highlight not only the untapped business benefits that many businesses are missing out on by overlooking paid leave, but also the need for public policies to address unmet need.

EILEEN FISHER, a women’s fashion design and manufacturing firm and retailer, is a great example of a ‘high-road’ employer doing well by its own employees and advocating for public policies that would help all workers. Amy Hall, an executive at the company, notes in a recent, widely published op-ed, “[W]hen our employees don’t have to worry about how they’ll pay the bills during an already stressful period in their lives, it’s easier for them to focus when they work, and the more productive they are, the better we all do.” EILEEN FISHER has joined several other forward thinking members of the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), including Uncommon Goods and Better World Club, in supporting the FAMILY Act, federal legislation to create a paid family and medical leave insurance program.

Hall explains, “At EILEEN FISHER, we believe so strongly that this program would be good for the country that we’ve signed on to a petition from the American Sustainable Business Council Action Fund supporting the FAMILY Act. We encourage all businesses to sign on.” She urged Congress to take action on the FAMILY Act in the New Year. Earlier this year, in an op-ed in The Hill, Mitch Rofsky, the president of another ASBC member company, Better World Club, wrote convincingly, “If Congress wants to help businesses grow, it should pass the FAMILY Act and bring the U.S. in line with other developed countries. Businesses, employees—and the marketplace—will be better for it.”

In addition to the splash EILEEN FISHER’s op-ed made last week when it was picked up in dozens of media outlets – and the power of earlier endorsements by other ASBC members – another big name came out in favor of public policies to guarantee paid family leave to workers. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, YouTube CEO Susan Wojicki, recounted her own experience of access to generous paid maternity leave at Google (which owns YouTube). Indeed, Wojicki is about to give birth to her fifth child and will enjoy the company’s 18 weeks of paid parental leave. But while celebrating the good fortune she has at Google, Wojicki rightly says, “[S]upport for motherhood shouldn’t be a matter of luck; it should be a matter of course. Paid maternity leave is good for mothers, families and business. America should have the good sense to join nearly every other country in providing it.”

Hall, Rofsky, and Wojicki join a growing number of high-profile business leaders who believe in public policies that enable working families to take the time they need to care for themselves and their families – and recognize the business benefits of such policies. As 2015 approaches, we expect many more will join the chorus of support.

To see quotes from other leaders who support the FAMILY Act, visit Better Workplaces, Better Businesses, a website sponsored by ASBC, the Main Street Alliance, and Social Venture Network.