Workers need paid parental and family leave so they can take care of new babies and sick kids and spouses and still have a job to come back to and money to live off of.
There is no question that paid parental and family leave is a fantastic starting point. The U.S. is radically out of step with the rest of the developed world, which guarantees new moms paid leave.
In the U.S., the Family and Medical Leave Act provides workers with 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but this law only covers about 60 percent of the workforce (many small employers are exempt, as are many types of families) and, even for those who are covered, many can’t afford to go without pay.
A national paid maternity-leave policy would bring the U.S. in line with the basic offerings of other developed countries. Paid family leave would take this even further by covering workers when they have sick children or parents.
At the same time, no child is self-sufficient by the age of 12 weeks, and most parents need to occasionally miss work for things other than illness. Even when nothing is wrong, how is an employee supposed to both work until 6 and be at daycare or an after-school program by 6? What can be done to make life easier in the regular day-to-day, when workers aren’t on leave?
There should be affordable or free childcare—not just school starting at age five, but daycare and pre-K starting as soon as parents return to the office.
The cost of childcare is, to put it in simple terms, crazy. As the economist Heather Boushey recently put it to The New York Times, “Childcare is just as expensive in many places as sending a kid to public university, but a college kid can get a part-time job. A toddler can’t.” For many families, the cost of childcare can mean that one parent simply can’t work, and as a result families end up cash-strapped.
Although lessening the cost of childcare would not directly give families more time, there clearly would be indirect effects, such as reducing the time a parent needs to work to cover the childcare tab, or the aggregate effects of enabling more women to advance further in the workplace. Perhaps more importantly, the cost of childcare is central to balancing the competing demands of work and life; it reflects the value society places on parents’ time and ambitions and the work of caring for one’s family.
But even when workers have good, reliable childcare, work and life can still come to butt heads. What happens when a worker needs to be home so that an electrician or plumber can come? What happens when a kid has a rough day at school and needs a parent’s embrace and comfort?
Beyond parents, all workers could use a bit more flexibility. If telecommuting is a possibility, depending on the field of work, employees shouldn’t be expected to physically be in the office every day; working from home should be allowed, even encouraged. Hours, too, need not be so rigid. If an employee can easily wrap up a project or task after the kids go to bed, it’s unnecessary to force them to get it done between 9 and 5.