Dr. Hartmann Speaks on Work/Family Policy

The Economic Policy Institute’s forum entitled “Getting Real About Families,” which began bright and early at 7:30 AM, was an invigorating wake-up call to the need for employment reform in the United States, including minimum standards to accommodate working families.
The keynote speaker, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, challenged the audience to think boldly about solutions to the multi-faceted problems facing the American workforce. While DeLauro was realistic in her thinking about these issues, she remained optimistic and was not hesitant to hope for the possibility of dramatic, positive change in the near future. She emphasized that the U.S. is far behind its peers in accommodating labor laws; the U.S. does not require employers to guarantee paid sick leave or paid parental leave for employees. As she discussed her participation in the recent Children’s Summit and convincingly pledged to continue fighting for reform, she urged listeners to join her efforts.
Dr. Heidi Hartmann, President of IWPR, followed DeLauro’s rousing speech with startling statistics and a hopeful outlook. She outlined the three components of her policy program: subsidized child and elder care, paid care giving leave, and greater flexibility on the job. The program calls for both income replacement and job security. What we found most astounding was her finding (from IWPR’s research) that if women (and minority men) were paid equally half of poverty would be reduced.
Although Dr. Hartmann agreed that the U.S. is far behind other countries in their labor policies and that “what we need is everything,” she acknowledged the important contribution of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to the international labor policy conversation. The FMLA is a very important workplace benefit for families, and is a step toward making the work/life balance easier. However, it is of limited value to workers who cannot afford to go without a paycheck. While the FMLA is in need of reform and extension, it does bring ideas of universality and equality to the forefront by applying to women and men alike. Despite its lack of pay, it does help workers significantly by requiring employers to provide one thing that only they can provide, a guaranteed job to come back to after a period away from work on family leave.
Janet C. Gornick, director of the Luxembourg Income Study, concluded the panel with comparisons of U.S. labor policies to those of other countries. According to Gornick, America’s public policy is failing working parents and their families. For example, the United States is one of only five countries in the entire world that does not have federally guaranteed paid maternity leave; the other four are Australia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho (and Australia has recently added a lump sum payment of about $5,000 to each family who has a child, which some observers consider a form of maternity leave). Gornick ended her presentation by reaffirming the other speakers’ assertions that gender equality is at the heart of the employment policy reform we need today.
The event painted a clear picture of where U.S. work-family policies stand and what must be done to reform them. The combination of research and enthusiastic advocates for change present at this forum reaffirmed our commitment to continued work for reform.
Krystal Lechner and Karen Spitzfaden