A group of 203 faculty members at top U.S. business schools signed a letter Tuesday urging Congress to expand protections that would offer paid family and sick leave to anyone with a job.
The faculty members cite research and sound business practices, as well as "our experiences teaching the business leaders of tomorrow," to explain their demand that "the United States must adopt a national paid family and medical leave policy."
The letter asks Congress to consider the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or "Family" Act, proposed legislation that would that would establish a basic paid-leave standard for all workers. It argues that young professionals delay starting families or opt out altogether because balancing parenting and work has become too difficult.
"The business school community was missing from the debate," says Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, the advocacy group behind the letter.
Only 13 percent of workers in the U.S. have access to paid family leave, reports the NPWF, and fewer than 40 percent have paid medical leave. U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez has called the U.S. paid leave policy "dismal."
The Family Act, if passed, would create a national program offering 12 weeks and 66 percent wage replacement and benefits for mothers. It has been endorsed by such companies as Patagonia, Care.com, Eileen Fisher, and Google. Part of the attraction for companies is that it could neutralize the benefits bidding war in some sectors, in which companies attempt to outdo the leave policies of other businesses in their hunt for the best employees.
Paid family leave insurance programs already exist in some states, including California, where, according to a survey by the Center for Economic Policy Research, small and medium-size businesses saw a bigger benefit from the policies than large companies, since they had been at a hiring disadvantage compared with big outfits with generous leave policies, says Shabo. If all employers can offer the same standard, "the playing field is more level." The survey also found that 87 percent of businesses had no increased costs as a result of paid family leave, and businesses saved money because they were better able to hold on to employees.
The public debate about paid leave has evolved along with the role of men in parenting, as paternity leave becomes an increasingly attractive benefit in businesses. "Young men today have different values than their fathers," says Stewart D. Friedman, a Wharton School of Business professor who studies work-life balance and who was the letter's first signer. "They want and expect to be engaged, and they need support from the government."
Friedman's research found that only 42 percent of Wharton graduates planned to start families, down from 79 percent in 1992. "It isn't because fewer people want to have kids these days," he says. "It's because financially, they can't see how to make it work."
The private sector is wary of government intervention, but something needs to be done about the rising demands on young professionals, says Friedman, especially since the boundaries between work and life are harder to maintain. "We're seeing the cost of that expressed in burnout, stress. Everyone wants to learn mindfulness and yoga. Why?" Friedman asks. "Because of overwork."
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the source of the California study in the seventh paragraph. It is the Center for Economic Policy Research, not the National Partnership for Women & Families.