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If Companies Really Mean Business on Work and Family Issues...

Posted: 05/06/10 01:53 PM ET

President Obama and the First Lady recently hosted a White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility. It was an important event focused on best practices, but the real challenge facing the nation is to go from best practices that benefit a few to decent working conditions for all. The missing piece of the puzzle is for corporate leaders to really work with policymakers to ensure that all Americans have decent working conditions.

The United States is exceptional when it comes to workplace policy -- and not in a way that benefits American women, men or companies. One hundred and seventy-seven countries guarantee paid leave for new mothers; more than 100 guarantee 14 weeks or more of paid leave. Seventy-four countries guarantee paid leave for new fathers, 163 countries guarantee paid sick leave, 164 guarantee paid annual leave, 132 guarantee breastfeeding breaks, and 157 guarantee a weekly day of rest. The United States praises good practice but guarantees none.

The argument has been that elective private sector provision would make up for the lack of public policy. It hasn't. While all Europeans are guaranteed paid sick leave, more than 50 million working Americans have none. While new mothers and fathers from Austria to Sweden, the Czech Republic to Norway to Canada, have access to more than six months of paid parental leave, in the United States only 12 percent of companies provide paid maternity leave outside of temporary disability insurance and only 7 percent paid paternity leave.

If it had led to a great economic advantage, there might be more reason for companies to support the unusual approach the United States has taken. But it hasn't. At Harvard and McGill Universities, we conducted a global study to examine the impact of basic labor protections on countries' economic outcomes. We looked at the countries ranked as most competitive in eight of the last ten years by business and academic leaders at the World Economic Forum. Fourteen of the 15 most competitive countries guarantee paid sick leave; the only one that does not is the United States. Fourteen of the 15 most competitive countries guarantee paid annual leave; again, the United States is the exception. And 13 of the 15 most competitive countries guarantee paid leave for new mothers. The only ones that do not are the United States and Australia and Australia has committed to providing this leave next year.

The failure to provide labor protections has not given U.S. companies a competitive advantage, nor has it kept unemployment rates down for Americans. At the beginning of this year, unemployment here was 9.7 percent. Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany are just a few of the advanced economies that had better working conditions and lower unemployment.

This should not come as a surprise, as providing good working conditions has clear advantages. Working lengthy hours without leave has been shown to lead to declining productivity per hour. In contrast, providing parental leave improves the next generation's health and education outcomes and workers' outcomes, health status, and loyalty to employers.

The United States took its biggest step in work family policy when it passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, now 17 years ago. While that law protects workers from job loss associated with the birth and adoption of a child or a serious illness, the unpaid nature of this leave means that it effectively grants family leave only to the affluent. Fewer people fall into that category as the recession grinds on.

Business and government leaders should work together next on a simple advance: paid sick leave. Last month, the United States took a critical step towards guaranteeing access to medical care. But 50 million workers may not be able to afford to take leave from work to access that care for themselves or their families. Congress is considering legislation to guarantee workers seven paid sick days. The seven days of paid sick leave it would provide is readily affordable; 98 countries guarantee six months or more if necessary. Businesses will benefit when there is less spread of infectious disease. While American business and government leaders working together to guarantee seven paid sick days would be one small step for humankind, it would be a giant leap for the United States.

Jody Heymann is author of Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth that We Can't Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone.