In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama touched on a core issue that has affected women for as long as they have been in the workplace. He said a woman “deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship. And you know what, a father does too. It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode.”
Inadequate support for working American families is nothing new. In 1963, the Kennedy administration produced a report about the status of working women in the United States. The report pointed out that no more than one-third of America’s working women had any sort of help with loss of income due to childbearing. The report also noted that employers often passed over women for employment because of the assumption that they would get pregnant and leave the job.
It’s a shame to think that the twenty-first century’s Joan Holloways still find themselves facing tough decisions about something as fundamental as having a job and a family.
Since the 1960s, much has changed for women in the labor force. The number of women and mothers in the workforce has risen dramatically, as has their share of household income. Unfortunately, no matter what their occupation, little has changed in terms of workplace support for those that have babies or sick relatives to care for. While there are laws in place to help protect against pregnancy discrimination, pregnancy and family responsibilities discrimination persists, and working women risk losing their jobs, not getting hired or missing out on promotions due to pregnancy.
Women covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act are able to take up to 12 weeks of protected leave for childbearing or caretaking purposes. Unfortunately, many mothers cannot afford to take 12 weeks off work without pay. While women in almost every other country in the world can receive some sort of paid family leave, women in the United States only get paid family leave benefits if they are lucky enough to work in a state or for a company that provides these benefits.
Instead of discriminating against women who are or may become pregnant, or who need to care for a sick child or parent, we need to embrace solutions that provide income support for such workers.
Paid family leave programs − which benefit men and women − not only are good for American families, but can also be a smart move for businesses. A few states have already enacted laws to provide for wage replacement for workers taking leave for childbirth, adoption or the serious illness of close family members. Research on existing paid leave programs suggests that paid leave has negligible costs to employers and potential gains in terms of employee morale and productivity.
On Tuesday night, the president called for a new vision for workplace policies related to leave. Recognizing the need to support working families, this spring the president will host a Summit on Working Families to set an agenda for a 21st century workplace to ensure America’s global economic competitiveness in the coming decades. In the months leading up to the summit, the Department of Labor will support the White House in this effort by engaging groups and individuals across the country to identify initiatives that benefit America’s working families, American businesses and the American economy.
Hopefully before too long, the only resemblance that any modern workplace has to “Mad Men” will be the stylish wardrobe.
Latifa Lyles is the acting director of the department’s Women’s Bureau.