As the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, graphic artist Emory Douglas created striking visual images for the movement's publications and posters.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, granting up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers who qualify. Twenty years later, 100 million people have used the leave to deal with medical problems or care for family members — and businesses report few adverse effects. But activists complain that half the work force still doesn’t qualify and that what we really need is paid leave. Kojo examines how we treat workers in the U.S. and why we’re so far behind other countries in giving employees time off.
- Debra Ness President, National Partnership for Women & Families
- Howard Ross Author, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance" (Rowman & Littlefield); also Principal, Cook Ross
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Howard Ross is here.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIf you work full time for a company with more than 50 employees and you need time off to have a baby or take care of a sick parent, the federal government has your back. You're eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but if you work part time or have been at your job for less than a year or work for a small business, you may be out of luck. This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act. And while the sky didn't fall, as businesses had predicted and millions of Americans have taken leave under the law, its most ardent supporters say it still doesn't go far enough.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey say the law was meant to be a first step toward a family friendly America, but 20 years later we have yet to take the next step. Among the ongoing concerns, 40 percent of the work force is not covered by the law and the leave is still unpaid, which means even people who are eligible often can't afford to take it. Joining me to talk about the evolution of family and medical leave is Howard Ross, principal with Cook Ross, author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance. Howard, always a pleasure.
MR. HOWARD ROSSYeah, you, too, Kojo. Good to see you.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Debra Ness, president of The National Partnership for Women and Families. Debra Ness, thank you for you joining us.
MS. DEBRA NESSIt's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIThis is a conversation you, too, can join by calling 800-433-8850. Have you taken family or medical leave? What was your experience? Call and share it with us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Debra Ness, give us some context. When your group, then called the Women's Legal Defense Fund, first pushed for the Family and Medical Leave Act critics said it was a socialist idea. How did you convince lawmakers in both parties that this was good for the country?
NESSWell, they not only said it was a socialist idea, they said it would never happen in this country, but we were a stubborn, persistent, tenacious group. And one of the things we did was build a very, very broad coalition of more than 200 groups. One of the things you learn when you do work in this town is that nothing gets done with one organization, one party, one person. So we needed to bring everybody under the tent. And whether you were talking about women's groups, children's groups, older groups, disability groups, religious groups, civil rights groups, labor groups, you name it, we had it as part of our coalition.
NESSAnd it was incredibly important to have all those different players who had relationships with folks on Capitol Hill, who were able to make the case and who understood why a law like this was so important for their constituents. And so having that kind of broad support and the willingness of so many different players to keep fighting the fight -- and over time, telling the personal stories, putting the human face on what these policies really mean for American families allowed us to prevail.
NESSBut it was a tortuous path many times. It was actually vetoed twice by the first President Bush. And it became the first piece of legislation that Bill Clinton signed when he came into office.
NNAMDIHowever, those of us who observe Capitol Hill today wonder, given the partisanship that we now see on the Hill, whether if this kind of partisanship existed 20 years ago you could have accomplished this.
NESSWell, I first of all have to say it was a time of bipartisan support. We had Republicans and Democrats joining together in both the House and the Senate. That's how this law got passed. We're in a different day and I do think there's a kind of political polarization right now that makes that kind of bipartisanship much more difficult. And it's probably one of the reasons why we've made so little progress in these 20 years. But I don't want to take away from the fact that despite the fact that there haven't been many expansions of the Family and Medical Leave Act and despite the fact that we have a lot of work ahead of us, it was a groundbreaking law that for the first time recognized that all workers, women and men, needed to be able to manage their work and family lives.
NESSThat in a time when 50 percent of the workforce is women and most adults who can work are working, it is critical that we have workplace policies that reflect that reality. And this was the first law to do that. So we have a long ways to go, but we've changed the culture.
NNAMDIHoward Ross, it's not just the politics. It's also how people tend to view the relationship between employers and employees in the United States. You've said the demand for short-term profit often creates an us-versus-them mentality.
ROSSYeah, well, I think we see that at every level of society today. You know, we know very clearly our political system is polarized. And out of that polarization what's beginning to happen is people are making decisions, not based on an issue, but based on how my position on that issue fits into an already determined ideology. And there's a fundamental challenge in that. I think there's an old quote from Sherlock Holmes, which I don't remember word from word, and I guess it's always dangerous to quote a fictional character anyway, but he says something like, you know, it's a danger to gather facts to suit a theory.
ROSSRather than theories that come from facts because when we gather facts to suit a theory, we're driving towards those things which seem to fit into that which we already believe. And I think that that's very clearly true in terms of what we're seeing societally around some of these issues. You know, we've gone from a time when, for example, you know, 40 years ago when I came out of college, when people were told, you know, find a place to work and you build loyalty and, you know, you establish yourself in that place.
ROSSAnd you can count on the company to support you and together we'll move into some future together. To one now in which a lot of people in society see workers as the enemy. And we see this in the challenge to union rights. We see it in this notion of short-term employment and in every way. And the challenge with that is, you know, we might have an opinion about that in terms of social equity, depending upon who we are and what are political point of view or social point of view is, but there's a bigger, more fundamental issue.
ROSSAnd that is from the standpoint of running a business, the investment that we make short term in our employees and creating an environment in which our employees can feel comfortable that they can be fully themselves, that they can manage the issues that they're dealing with at home, that things that are happening at home are not creating upset at work or more stress at work, actually leads to long-term productivity. It leads to more solidity in the business. It leads to less turnover. It leads to better customer service. It leads to better team development and collaboration.
ROSSSo in every sense the way organizations function are served by having people who are served and yet we seem to have forgotten that as a culture for the most part.
NNAMDIWell, Debra Ness, one of the things you refused to compromise on in 1993 was the notion that workers did not just need medical leave for themselves, they needed leave to take care of family members at both ends of the life cycle, new babies, aging parents. Why was that so important?
NESSWell, it started from a deeply held belief that it was just as important to create a society in which men could fully engage in family life, as it is to create a workplace in which women have a level playing field. And that is the reality that we face today. Women and men are in the workforce. Women are 40 percent of the major bread winners in their families and in most families you need two paychecks to survive. When you don't make these accommodations in today's world, you're hurting not just the women or not just the men workers, you're hurting the entire family. You're hurting the economy.
NESSAnd coming to grips with that is part of coming to grips with the fact that we live in the 21st century. We often say we need 21st-century policies to match the realities of our 21st century lives.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. We're discussing 20 years of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Do you think the U.S. should expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover the 40 percent of the workforce that is not eligible? Tell us or not. 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You've said the biggest compromise that supporters made to get this law passed was economic. Why did you agree to unpaid leave?
NESSIt was a political reality. There was no way we were going to be able to pass a law with paid leave in it at that point in time. And our belief was that if we could begin the process of changing the culture, of getting the workplace culture and societal expectations to change, that we would have more luck in expanding over time. And in fact, if you look at where we are today, if you look at what people think a decent workplace should have in place, when you look at the expectations of young people who are coming into the workplace, the expectations are like night and day from what they were 20 years ago or 30 years ago when this law was first drafted.
NESSBut there were a couple of other very important things that we didn't compromise on, Kojo. One of them was that early on there was a push to make this a law that would be only about maternity leave or paternity leave. And there was a belief, probably a correct one, that we could pass the law a lot more quickly if we made it for mommies only. And we viewed that as something that would eventually…
NNAMDIYou said it's got to be gender neutral.
NESSYes. Gender neutrality was critical.
NNAMDIHave leave to men, as well as women.
NESSExactly. It needed to be something that benefited everybody. It was also important to us that we not leave out the elder end of the spectrum. And now with the demographic shift that we face and the elder care tsunami it's going to be extraordinarily important in our society for people to be able to take care of their elder relatives.
NNAMDIOnto -- go ahead, please.
ROSSI was just going to say, Kojo, that it's also important for us to remember that 20 years ago our ability to do things like telecommute, our ability to work from home, our ability to stay in touch when we're dealing with home issues and have to stay home, was not nearly what it is now. And so, you know, when we put that in the context, it's especially important for people to recognize that we could be flexible with our employees and still maintain a relatively high level of productivity from people.
NNAMDIYou know, maybe if somebody is away taking care of a child or if they're away taking care of an elderly family member or something like that, they can't be in the office everyday and especially, obviously, if the family member's out of town. Maybe they can't, you know operate at the same level or productivity they normally operate at, but it's still a far cry from 20 years ago when very few people had the capacity to do most of their job while they were at home. And so if anything, I think we've got much more capability to meet the needs of people than we've ever had before.
NNAMDIWell, I want to go back, I think, maybe even more than 20 years to your own experience when you were working at a hospital here in the Washington area. And you needed some time to take care of, I think, your parents.
ROSSMy dad, yeah, my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1985. I was a single parent at the time. And I had just taken a job at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. I had only been there for about a year when my dad was diagnosed so I didn't have really any lead built up to speak of, other than, you know, a small amount. And my mom and dad were in Florida. And, you know, I was just really blessed. My employers at the time made it really clear to me that they wanted to support me and the family.
ROSSAnd I ended up spending two months out of those six months down in Florida with my family, with really no capability of being able to do much work from down there. You know, we didn't even have laptop computers back then and let alone, email and all these other kinds of things. And yet, they couldn't have been more supportive. And, you know, the reality is that I would have walked over coals for them after that. You know, it was just, you know, the kind of loyalty that they showed me, the kind of support they showed me in every way -- and not just when I was away, but also the emotional impact of that -- made a huge difference.
ROSSSo I've lived that from that side. And of course I'm an employer now and I've got, you know, I have the same thing for my own employees.
NNAMDIAnd we'll talk about that in a second, but first, Jerry in Alexandria, Va. You're on the air, Jerry. Go ahead, please.
JERRYYes. . I am -- back in about 2000 had a baby who had -- was a failure to thrive and had immune issues. And I tempted to use a new offshoot of the Family Medical Leave Act, the Family Friendly Leave Act. And because the legislation is such, my supervisor said that my daughter didn't look sick enough for me to take off. And when I did she started going after me and I had to file an EEO complaint and file with the office of Special Council to be able to take care of my daughter.
NNAMDIYour supervisor I'm assuming was not a medical doctor, right?
JERRYNo. She had some medical training but the problem is in much of this legislation, it's left up to the supervisor to make decisions. And then you bounce around with either the organization's doctor and your doctor. And in this case the supervisor with Family Friendly Leave Act -- because you actually get to use your accrued leave -- the supervisor could make the decision.
JERRYAnd -- but she didn't just do that of course. She tried to do a bunch of other things that were inappropriate. And so I had to go to the office of Special Council. And they did uphold it and I was able to take care of my daughter. But I'd like to say that about three-quarters of her college fund went into lawyer's fees to protect my right to use (unintelligible) .
NNAMDIOne quick question before I have Debra and Howard respond to this. Did your supervisor imply that she thought you were malingering?
JERRYNo. She just felt that in her mind my daughter was not sick enough to justify the use of these leave acts and therefore she wasn't going to allow it. And if I tried to do it she would -- she was a colonel in the air force, that she would teach me a lesson and that's what she tried to do.
NNAMDIDebra Ness, what do you say to somebody like Jerry?
NESSWow. Well, without knowing all the facts in this case, I would say that that supervisor was probably breaking some aspects of the law here. While a supervisor may be able to say how much you can use your accumulated annual or sick leave to cover the cost of your time when you take the Family and Medical Leave Act, they're not equipped to function in place of doctors. And if they are doubtful that you have gotten the right recommendation from your doc, they can ask for a second and third medical certification. But it is the doctor who is supposed to provide that kind of medical certification.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Thank you very much for your call, Jerry. If you have called, stay on the line. When we come back, we will get to your call. The number's 800-433-8850. What changes would you like to see in family and medical leave policies in this country, 800-433-8850? Or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's been 20 years since the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act. We're talking with Debra Ness about that. She's president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. And Howard Ross, he's a principal in the firm Cook Ross and author of the book "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." And taking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIHow would you run a business with too few employees to put you under the rules of the Family and Medical Leave Act?" What is your philosophy though about granting leave or other accommodations to your staff and what are some examples of how you put it into practice?
ROSSWell, we do -- basically our philosophy is that anything that we can do that doesn't put an inordinate stress on the business, that doesn't -- that's -- in other words, our tendency is to try to make it work if it's at all possible. You know, we have employees right now who, you know, our chief managing partner is somebody who comes from Chicago. She was here. She was living here at the time and for five years has been working with us, Michael Leslie Amilcar.
ROSSAnd Michael runs a company on a day-to-day basis. She functions for people out there, sort of like the CCO of the company, if you will. And she's becoming a partner now. And Michael went home during the summer and found that she had a lot of family issues in Chicago that needed to be dealt with. She came back and said, you know, I'm going to need to move to Chicago. So we fundamentally changed the whole structure of our organization so that she could do that.
ROSSExactly right. So we got -- you know, we've gotten better videoconferencing, you know, software and hardware. She comes in every other week for three days roughly. We've managed to make that transition. We have another employee who's got a parent with Alzheimer's who's up in New York State and we try to accommodate his ability to get up there. We've had other people who've had issues with children and we create various ways for people to do telecommuting when they need to.
ROSSYou know, with this small company, I can't say that it's not a challenge sometimes. We've only got 16 full time people and so if somebody's out there's not a lot that you can do to replace that person. But what we have started to do is to get much more rigorous about knowing that people have backup. So even though this isn't my job, I'm ready to step in to fill in for somebody if that's necessary.
ROSSYou know, we're just -- I think more than anything else it's not about the specifics that you do, it's about an orientation. And our orientation is that we've got a community here. And what happens to one member of the community affects everybody in the community. And if we, as people who are leaving the company, don't recognize that when they have needs, then how can we possibly expect them to put their own limitations aside when we need something special from them? So it becomes something that's, you know, a synergistic environment.
NNAMDIDebra Ness, there have been a few modest changes in the Family and Medical Leave Act in the past two decades. How was it expanded for military families?
NESSWell, for military families we expanded the amount of time that next of kin can take to care for a wounded veteran, a wounded soldier to 26 weeks. That was one major improvement in recognition of the long recovery time that often is coincident with someone who comes back from active service. And we also have made it possible to use Family and Medical Leave in circumstances surrounding a service member being called up to duty.
NESSSo somebody gets called up, a dad, a mom and now suddenly there need to be new living arrangements, new childcare arrangements, moving maybe to a new school area, all sorts of affairs needing to be put into order. Allowing folks to take some time to put their affairs in order in order to get ready for active deployment is another use.
NNAMDIHere is John in Vienna, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNThank you for taking my call. This is good timing. I tuned in late to the show but one of the things I want to comment about is I am a reservist who has spent a lot of time on active duty since 9/11. I am also a federal employee. I injured my back on my last deployment and was medically retired due to my injury. When I returned to my federal job and applied for accommodations, these things were summarily denied without even any sort of looking out for experts or seeking some sort of opinion on it.
JOHNBut the one thing that is keeping me safe between now and the time that my case actually gets to court was the Family and Medical Leave Act. If it weren't for this piece of legislation, this policy, I would literally be out of work with no protection whatsoever. And it's a shame but all the legislation that's suppose to be helping military folks, F.M.L.A. is the one thing that has protected me from my federal agency.
NNAMDIDebra Ness, I guess you've heard that before.
NESSWe have, and it's one of the reasons why we want to make some improvements.
NNAMDIThat's what I was about to talk about next.
NESSIt's way over time for some...
NNAMDIDespite the success of the Family and Medical Leave Act, a lot of people say it's time to do more...
NNAMDI...starting with expanding the law to cover the 40 percent of American workers who still are not eligible for unpaid leave, right?
NESSThat's right. I think actually there are three major ways in which we need to move forward. The first, as you said, is making the law -- the family medical leave law available to everybody, or at least as many people as we can. And a couple of ways you can do that, one is you can lower the threshold for employers who fall under the scope of the act. So right now it only applies to worksites where you have 50 or more employees. If you lower that to 25 employees, for example, you can include millions more workers under the scope.
NESSIt also limits people if they have not worked a full 1250 hours in a year or worked for a full year for a given employer. So that doesn't reflect the realities of the fact that a lot of workers today string together part time jobs in order to bring home a whole income. And we need to fix that piece of the law as well. The definition of family needs to be expanded. When the law was passed it was passed for child, a spouse, yourself or a parent.
NESSIt doesn't include grandparents. How many grandparents are taking care of their grandchildren, and how many grandchildren are taking care of their grandparents? It doesn't include an adult child. It doesn't include a sibling. It doesn't include your parent-in-law. It doesn't include a domestic partner or same-sex spouse. So the definition of family member needs to change.
NESSAnd then there are an assortment of small things that would be helpful for people to be able to use this leave for. Bereavement, somebody who has lost a parent or a child needs time, or the opportunity to do a school event for your child, or the opportunity to get the time you need to deal with domestic violence incidents or sexual assault incidents. Those are not currently covered right now. So those are just some of the ways we could expand the Family and Medical Leave Act for more people and for more reasons.
NNAMDIAnd John, thank you very much for your call. Howard, you were going to say?
ROSSYeah, I was just going to say that I think, you know, all the structures that we're talking about are really important. Structure creates behavior and so we need to have the structures in place. The kinds of things that Debra's talking about are important. And at the same time I think unless we have shift in mindset, those structures are always going to occur to people as problematic and create some resistance.
ROSSWe have a mindset in this country right now that any time an organization does something with the needs of its workers in mind it's socialism. And there's actually a whole other way to look at this which is -- which some people are now calling conscious capitalism, and that is that, you know, how do we look at capitalism from the standpoint of all of the stakeholders who are involved in the system. The shareholders are the owners of the company who ultimately make money. The leadership of the company, the employees or team members of the company, the customers who we're serving, the vendors who we're working with and the community that we're a part of.
ROSSAnd when companies do that, when you really sit down and make decisions thinking of the well being of all of those, creating win, win, win, win strategies rather than coming from a win-lose mindset, what you find is that there are multipliers that occur, that when I create a company in which people really feel good about working there, that that word gets out, particularly when it's a good company with a robust public -- you know, a public brand. People find out about that. They hear about that.
ROSSWe've got tons of places now that make lists of the top 50 places to work and all these kinds of things. And those places become magnets for the best talent. They become places where people want to continue to work and they also become places where people go to shop more, they got to buy more, they like to work with more. So there are ways to make this a win win. We're not suggesting that organizations have to sacrifice the bottom line in order to serve their employees. There's a way to win at the bottom line while doing that.
NNAMDIWell, here is Keith in Annandale, Va. Keith, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KEITHYeah, I hear everything that's being said about how this is all going to be win win and how great and everything. But if you look at the situation as it is now, kids are graduating from college, can't get a job. You know, when they do get a job it's a part time job. You know, I really believe that a big portion of this is everything that's been put on our system, not just one thing but it just keeps -- you know, you have a whole laundry list of things that you just laid out there. And every other interest group has a laundry list (unintelligible) pile on.
KEITHIt's like the Disabilities Act -- Americans with Disabilities Act. Before they passed that law, 20 percent more people with -- people with disabilities -- 20 percent more were employed than what is now. You know, and I wouldn't hire somebody with a disability because it's just so risky. If I knew them personally -- if I knew them, yeah. It used to be I would've hired them first. As a matter of fact, I did hire one first (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDISo what is it about the American's...what is it about the American's with Disabilities Act that would cause you to stop -- to not hire them.
KEITHHave you looked at the number of lawsuits that are brought by somebody that feels like they've been discriminated against? Whether it has merit or whether it doesn't really doesn't matter. If you're an employer -- you know, god forbid if you were a small employer and somebody brings suit against you, it can completely destroy your business. You know, I would prefer to hire somebody with disabilities, you know, just because of my nature. You know, I'd prefer to hire minorities, you know.
NNAMDIWell, you seem to -- Keith, you seem to feel the same way about the Family and Medical Leave Act. Do you think, A, it shouldn't exist at all and, B, it definitely should not be expanded?
KEITHYou know, there are certain -- you know, there are certain kinds of things but, you know, this gentleman was saying back in the mid '80s how well he was treated. Well, you know, I had a couple companies in the mid '80s. It was hard to get employees. You would do anything to get an employee. You would stand on your head to keep a good employee. And when the economy is doing well and employment is doing well, everybody, you know, does well. And if you need help, they will bend over backwards to try to help you because you can't find employees to replace them.
KEITHWhen things aren't doing well-- and I believe that a lot of our problems we brought on ourselves because we give so much of our (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIOkay. I get your point. Keith, you seem to be saying that...
KEITH...why would we hire somebody permanently or why not go with subcontractors where you don't have to worry about this. And that's what we're having.
NNAMDIOkay. Here is Howard Ross.
ROSSThere are a number of things there, Keith. I appreciate your comments. I mean, first of all, I want to talk about the special -- this issue about special interest groups. One of the things that gets lost in this conversation is that we've got a system now in which we've got all of these different areas that are called special interest groups. But the one group that is not referred to as a special interest group are shareholders.
ROSSShareholders are sort of outside of this conversation about what special interest groups need. And shareholders, actually we know from looking at how investments are doing now and how the top quintile of society is doing now, shareholders are making ridiculously high amounts of money right now. And we've got this explosion of money at the very top level of society that's coming because we've designed a system now which places the primacy of that shareholder group above all else.
ROSSAnd so it's -- we haven't moved from a system in which particular stakeholders or special interest groups want something. We've always had a system where special interest groups want something. The only different is that one particular special interest group, that is shareholders or investors, needs are set up much higher than any others now. And basically, of course, we all know that it's just because of this whole notion of trickledown economics, that if we give investors money ultimately it will lead to more things. It doesn't.
ROSSThe second is that while it might have been true in '85 that, you know, there were lots of people out there -- or there was a shortage of jobs, that wasn't the issue in this particular case. It was the issue of a -- you know, they could very easily have found somebody to replace my job -- it was that they were trying to create an environment in which the needs of the whole family, the needs of the whole person are taken into account.
ROSSAnd what we lose in this conversation is that when we create a societal structure in which there's stress all around us, in which people are economically pressed, in which they don't know that they're going to be able to keep their jobs, they don't know that they're going to be able to take care of their children, their family members, their parents, grandparents, etcetera. That that insecurity shows up in the marketplace. And the impact of that in the marketplace undermines the economic performance of not just some companies in the marketplace, but all companies in the marketplace.
NNAMDIKeith, thank you very much for your call. Here's Debra.
NESSYes. You know, one of the benefits to this law having been around now for 20 years is that we actually have research showing how it's working. And the Department of Labor, just a couple weeks ago, released its latest survey of employers and employees. And first of all, 90 percent of worksites report that comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act has had a positive or neutral effect, that it has increased productivity, reduced turnover, improved morale and profitability. And surprisingly, only 1.6 percent of the employers reported any worksite abuses of this law.
NESSSo the law seems to be working from both an employer and an employee perspective. And going back to Howard's win, win, win, win, we know that these laws have benefits obviously for workers and their families. You are more likely to go back to the job if you have been able to take leave or paid leave. Your earnings are greater a year later if you're a mom returning to work and you had paid leave.
NESSYou're less likely to rely on public assistance or food stamps if you have had access to leave and paid leave. But for the worker, for the work place, the employer, you also have a reduction in turnover, which is one of the most expensive things that employers have to deal with, and there's much less recruitment, retraining and retention costs.
NESSIn addition, we know that there are many public health benefits to these laws. So for example, children in hospitals need a third less time to recover from their hospital stay if a parent can be with them. Folks who have paid sick days are less likely to use an emergency room. We could save over a billion dollars in emergency room costs just by making sure that everybody could earn paid sick days. There are many ways in which this is win-win, not just for the workers but for the employers.
NNAMDIYou have proposed a national paid leave insurance program like the ones that exist in California and New Jersey. How would it work, who would be eligible to use it?
NESSAll right. Well, we're very excited about this idea. We believe that it should work like any insurance program. It would be a very small payroll deduction supported by both employers and employees. You would pay into a fund. That fund would then be available to provide partial income replacement when you need to take leave for a period of weeks. And you would get perhaps two-thirds of your pay up to a certain limit, and there are two states in this country that have already put such a law into place, California and New Jersey.
NESSAnd the good news is those laws are working quite well. The law in New Jersey and the law in California afford workers approximately $500 of replacement income. Both of those funds are completely self-sustaining. If fact, California had a one trillion plus surplus that some of the legislators wanted to raid to help with their budget deficit. Fortunately that didn't happen. And New Jersey even lowered the payroll deduction, and so it comes to something like a half a percent, about a dollar 50 a week for an average employee.
NESSAnd finally, we would suggest that this kind of a national paid leave insurance program could be put in place using the infrastructure of the social security system which already has the apparatus. The funds would be completely separate, the administration and the payout would be completely funded by these payroll deductions, but the infrastructure would be there to carry it out.
ROSSOkay. Yeah. Just two things really quick, Kojo. One is that Debra was talking about health care costs and the impact on health care costs, which are very real. There's a whole other piece to this which is the impact of societal health. When people don't have leave, and their children are sick, they have a tendency to push their children into school days when they should stay home. Other children get sick. They have a tendency to put them -- send them to babysitters rather than stay home. Other children get sick.
ROSSI mean, this is more than simply a financial issue where health care is concerned. It's also an issue of how do we control the spread of disease. The other issue is -- I want to go back real quickly to what Keith was talking about, about this whole notion of disability lawsuits are discrimination lawsuits. This is a complete myth. Most people, first of all, the myth that a lot of people have is that if you create a law that allows people to have lawsuits to prevent discrimination, then everybody is going to see discrimination lawsuits as a way to get rich. Simply does not pan out.
ROSSIn fact, what the data shows is only one in ten cases of discrimination is ever brought in a lawsuit, and only one in ten that are brought are actually ever -- ever get litigated in court. The reality is that most people do not want to sue their employer, and people with disabilities actually work much more effectively and productively than most employees do. They've found consistently where organizations create disability-friendly programs, and family-friendly programs, then employees produce more. They work better.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on 20 years of the Family and Medical Leave Act. If you've called, stay on the line. If you haven't yet, the number is 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the Family and Medical Leave Act. It's been 20 years since it was passed. We're talking with Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, and Howard Ross, principal of the firm Cook Ross, and author of the book, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." Talk about sick leave in this country. A few cities and states require employers to offer paid sick leave, but will we ever see at the national level?
NESSI sure hope so. And there is a piece of legislation called the Healthy Family Act, which we are hoping to see reintroduced in Congress this session. The lead sponsors are Congresswoman DeLauro in the House and Senator Harkin in the Senate. It is really hard for many people to wrap their brains around the fact that 40 percent of our workforce can't even earn a single paid sick day. And when you look at the low wage workers, it's 80 percent.
NESSIt's astounding. And those low wage workers tend to be in the jobs where you least want people going to work sick. So they're the service workers, your food service workers, your personal care workers, your nursing home workers, your retail establishments, your child care workers. And we're basically saying to these people that there is no time to get your preventive health care. There's no time to be sick. We tell people when they have the flu to stay home so they don't contaminate others. How do you do that if, at the end of the week, you might not be able to pay your rent because your check has gotten docked for the time you were out sick?
NESSOr what if you know that your job is going to be on the line? Howard, you mentioned sending sick kids to school, for many women in particular, they feel like they are just one sick child away from losing their job.
ROSSWell, I think that this is -- I think this is a really important issue for us to understand, that all of the groups you're talking about are also groups that have an inordinately higher percentage of single parent homes. And so it's exacerbated by that because single parent homes are working the jobs -- people who are running single parent homes who are working these jobs have even less flexibility. So it's income, it's family structure, all the these things are tied into this nexus of problems that we have.
NESSAnd you know, for every single one of these laws, whether you're talking about expanding Family and Medical Leave, paid sick days, or finally achieving a paid leave insurance program in this country, you hear the same arguments back from the business community, and they spend tens of millions of dollars trying to fight these laws. And it's always of same. It's the same arguments they make against minimum wage, the same arguments they made against child labor laws, the same arguments they made against the Family and Medical Leave Act.
NESSIt will cause us to cut back on jobs, it'll hurt our economic growth, and every place we have these laws, we've actually seen the opposite. San Francisco was one of the first communities in this country to pass a paid sick days law. It's now been in place for about five years. Its job growth has been greater than any of the surrounding counties that don't have paid sick days.
NNAMDIHere is Bridget in Fort Mead, Md. Bridget, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
BRIDGETHi, well I've been listening to this and I'm blown away by a lot of the rhetoric really -- that is basically rhetoric that's going on, when the real problems, I don't feel are addressed. I can't even believe that there are jobs that don't offer sick leave. I come from Australia, obviously, from my accent, and Australia, nationally, where anywhere you get a job, you get 12 days built-in sick leave. No questions asked. If you're sick, you don't come to work, and you get paid. And then we have paternity leave. We have 12-month maternity leave where you job is guaranteed when you come back after you have a child.
BRIDGETSix months or a year for paternity leave also. You don't lose your job if you have a child, or if you have a sick child. The way America is run needs an overhaul. America needs to take an example from other countries that are obviously successful, and look at how they're run. There is nothing wrong with knowing that you come -- that your country has socialistic fibers. You have to. The government needs to look after its people, otherwise what is the government for?
NNAMDIHoward, why does the United States lag so far behind over developed countries, it would appear, in its leave policies?
ROSSWell, one reason is because we have a myth in our country that's sort of a drumbeat in our country that, you know, America's the best, America's the best, America's the best. We saw this with health care, we see it with these kinds of practices. Most people in this country never even question that. In fact, it's tied into our patriotic demeanor. You have to say America's the best whether you know that's true or not. We know that we're lagging in education, we know that we're lagging in lots of other areas.
ROSSSo rather than looking out at other countries and saying, what are they doing that works? We start with the assumption that what we're doing it better. And, I mean, I love this country, and I'm glad to be living here, and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else, but there are things that we can do better than we're doing. And, you know, when Bridget talks about, you know, what -- the way the Australians look at this, or when you look at the way some Northern European countries look at some of these issues, you know, there are structures out there that seem to be working in other places.
ROSSNow, I'm not saying we can necessarily transport what people in Australia are doing, or what people in Sweden or other places are doing here, but we can certainly learn from them, and it starts with this notion that we are part of a collective, that at some point when we're -- what we do impacts other people and impacts the system. And if we create a system, a structure in our own company in which the only thing that matters is shareholder profit, that's the only factor that matters, then ultimately those who provide that shareholder profit will begin to dry up, and...
NNAMDII was about to say I'm not so sure exactly whether people still feel the notion that our leave policies in the United States are the best in the world, because Debra, your group did some polling after the November election, and found support for the idea of more and better leave policies. What did you say, who did you talk...
NESSYes. It was stunning. We looked at voters after the election, and it was a stunning 86 percent of voters that said they believed that Congress and the president needed to take a look at new laws to address the needs of working families, including paid leave insurance, and that included 73 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of Independents, and well over 90 percent of Democrats. So this is not a red or blue state issue, a Democrat or Republican issue, it's a working families' issue, and I think Howard is right.
NESSWe do have a lot of mythology in this country that you somehow have to make it on your own. And a lot of times people struggle with these issues and they see it as their own individual problem, rather than as something that requires a systemic or societal solution. And that has happened particularly for this issue when it comes to women who find themselves trying to oftentimes be the primary caregivers in the family, at the same time that they're helping their family survive economically, juggling and struggling and thinking that somehow it's theirs to do by themselves, and not stepping back to realize, hey, it's time for our country to actually realize that this is not only hurting me and my family, this is hurting our businesses and our national economy.
NNAMDII think Zionna in Woodbridge, Va. -- and thank you for your call, Bridget, has something to say about the issue of women. Zionna, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ZIONNAGood morning. One of your guests mentioned changing the definitions of family, of caretakers of parents, and I think this is really important, because as you guys were just talking about, you know, there needs to be other people who are taking care of the children at home, or taking care of elderly at home or sick people at home. When you have just maternal leave, you put the burden, the onus, just on women.
ZIONNAAnd, you know, sometimes the grandparent is helping out, sometimes the husband is helping out. There needs to be a better system for leave that's not just maternal leave. It needs to be paternal leave or parental leave, whatever it needs to be, and we do need to just look at the way that we're saying, hey, women, just do this. Just take of the kids, just take care of the old people, and also have a career. It's -- it's just crazy. It's crazy.
NNAMDIWell, Debra Ness would have something to say about that.
NESSWell, yeah. And I think that we couldn't agree more, and I would say it's why it's so important that this -- these laws are gender neutral, and that they cut across the broad number of reasons people need to take care of their family members and their own health, and if fact, families need that flexibility. If you are in a family where the woman is the one who has the more flexible job, or the man is the one who has the more flexible job, you should be able to make the decision based on what makes most sense for that family.
NESSWe tend to live in society where for a number of reasons, women often don't earn as much as men, or have less flexibility in their jobs, and end up automatically falling into those caregiver roles. But we have to get out of that mold of thinking, because there are lots of families in which the man's job may be more flexible than the woman's and he should be able to take the leave just as well as the woman should be able to take the leave.
ROSSOne of the things that important about this too, Kojo, is to recognize that we've got two different -- we're operating on two different planes here. There's the one plane which is the logic that Debra's talking about that this is now possible in our society. We're long past a society where only women can take care of the children. But on a subconscious level, we're still so heavily oriented in that direction, both men and women are still so heavily oriented in that direction, that there is a gender overlay to this.
ROSSAnd so we want to build those structures, but we also want to keep inquiring into where are we coming from if in terms of how we deal with these structures, so that a man, for example, who takes paternity leave may be legally allowed to do it, but may need a different level of derision from the other employees who he's working with, you know, the Mr. Mom comments and jokes and things like this. And so might be disinclined because of the social impact of it at work to do it even though it might work best for their family for him to do it.
NNAMDIBack to the political environment, Debra Ness, this Congress seems to have a hard time agreeing on much of anything. How likely is it that legislators will take action on workers' leave policies?
NESSWell, I have so say, I am enormously encouraged by the response we've gotten to the anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act. It was a moment when we saw actually some of the older members of the Congress who came back, Democrat and Republican to celebrate, as well as the current members of Congress. We feel that there is a new conversation going on in Congress about what's essential to our families' economic security, and these policies are now being talked about as part of that essential economic security.
NESSAnd I think taking them out of the bucket of being nice benefits that maybe pertain only to women, and putting them into the bucket of, these are basic economic security issues that pertain to women, men, and families, and disproportionately impact women, we have a shot at some action in this coming session.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's just about all the time we have. Debra Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. Thank you so much for joining us.
NESSIt's been a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd Howard Ross is a principal at the firm Cook Ross. He is author of the book, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." Howard, good to see you.
ROSSThanks, Kojo. It's an important topic. Thanks.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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