Cedar Crest College newspaper since 1923
By Stephanie Kershner, Staff Writer
In his January State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama discussed the need to address the country’s lack of paid family leave.
The United States is on a short list of developed countries that do not offer any guaranteed form of paid family leave. Comparable European countries, such as Ireland and the United Kingdom, offer 26 and 40 weeks paid family leave respectively.
While the federal government does offer 12 weeks leave for parents under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, it only pertains to companies with more than 50 employees, the leave is unpaid, and it applies only to full-time employees.
In his speech, the President offered potential improvements to the current FMLA policy. One example was to extend six weeks paid family leave to federal employees. However, changes, such as this, would not apply to working individuals outside of the government sector.
Critics argue that the current system doesn’t work for expecting families. “How many Americans can actually take off 12 weeks without pay?” asked Elizabeth Ortiz, assistant professor of communication and director of the First Year Experience at Cedar Crest College. “I know my family couldn’t.”
The current FMLA policy has impacted Taylor Page’s decision to have children. Page, a technical partner at Lehigh Valley Health Network and a Cedar Crest College art therapy major said, “I don’t think it[’s] fair for parents to have to use [vacation] and sick time in order to get paid those 12 weeks.” For this reason, Page and her husband have decided to wait to have children.
Why is it taking the United States so long to get on pace with comparable developed countries when it comes to paid family leave?
Ortiz’s theory is that since those in power, mainly big corporate executives and Congress, would not have to worry making ends meet for a leave of absence, there is no incentive to push change forward. “It is very short-sighted and problematic,” she said.
Dr. Kerrie Baker, professor of psychology and chairwoman of the Psychology Department, said that as a country, we realize that offering paid family leave is important, yet, we continue to stall making productive changes to improve current policies. “We are living in the Dark Ages.”
There are valid arguments against a paid family leave policy that need to be examined when designing new legislation. While global businesses are financially able to change their policies to benefit families by offering paid family leave, Baker said that this is not the case for many smaller companies.
Baker referenced a 2014-2015 report by the Lehigh Valley Research Consortium that found in the Lehigh Valley in particular, only 10 percent of companies have 50 or more employees. This leaves a significant proportion of companies in the Lehigh Valley without the capital and resources to provide benefits such as paid family leave.
In contrast, a Vodafone-commissioned analysis through KPMG LLP found that global businesses could save up to $19 billion annually through the implementation of a 16-week paid leave policy. This number is a direct reflection of the $47 billion global businesses spend every year to recruit and train new employees to replace women lost to the workforce after childbirth.
Others worry that forcing businesses to implement a paid family leave policy would discourage hiring women and keeping them in the work place. However, this is not just a problem in the business realm.
“We have seen trouble with keeping women in science for the long term,” said Dr. Audrey Ettinger, associate professor of Biological Sciences and director of the Neuroscience Program. “The age where people are working towards their professional goals is exactly when people are having babies.” Ettinger believes that not having a paid family leave policy keeps women from returning to the workforce.
Vodafone sees providing a paid family leave policy for employees as good business practice. Since women not returning to the workforce after starting a family are so prevalent, giving employees a policy that encourages that reintroduction at an appropriate pace makes sense. Vodafone realizes this helps them attract and retain talented women.
“As a historic women’s college, I think it’s critically important that our students pay attention to issues surrounding work and family leave,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz advises students looking to initiate change to become educated on the issue. Read up on current legislation and policies that are being discussed so that you can have an informed opinion. She also recommends starting a dialogue. Whether you are contacting your local, state, or federal representatives, or posting your opinions on social media, get connected. Ortiz also said remember to vote for people who share your commitment.