In the waning days of the Bush administration, pro-business forces want to lock in rules in several policy areas -- health, safety, labor -- in case a Democrat moves into the White House following the '08 election. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is among those rules they want to adjust and lock down (New York Times, 12/2/07, p. 1). In fact, American business should take a step back and realize that what American families need -- and therefore what's good for American business -- is not only family leave but support for paid family leave.
The FMLA is the 14-year-old law that provides workers the right to 12 unpaid weeks to care for a newly born or adopted child or a seriously ill child, parent, or spouse. In July the Labor Department issued a report about the FMLA. An important finding was the small number of days most workers took (about 10) despite the 12 weeks allowed. A whopping 78 percent of employees who reported a need for leave said they could not afford to take an unpaid leave. Many were mothers dealing with issues such as complications following a child's birth, an elder parent's catastrophic illness, or a teenager's car accident.
Some lobbyists for business are attempting to limit the FMLA by arguing that intermittent leave is too hard to administer and will increase labor costs and compromise operational efficiency. This concern, however, is overblown. Why?
Nowhere on earth do corporations have better operations and systems to handle administrative programs than in the United States. The 2006 Business Competitiveness Index (a component of the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index by Michael Porter of Harvard Business School) ranks American companies first in the world in company operations and strategy. Technology advances have made the administration of health, life, retirement, and leave benefits easier and cheaper than ever. At any given time, thousands of software engineers are developing programs to make what were once complex business administration tasks manageable from a simple laptop computer, even by a small business.
American business firms can handle paid leave hands down, because they know there is more to profitability than a single-minded focus on cost. California has offered paid family leave for years with no resulting exodus of business firms. Companies have many options in their strategic took kits: product differentiation, market segmentation, speed-to-market, cycle-time reduction -- to name a few. They can build structures, such as teams, to accommodate people on leave. Business leaders understand better than most that a global human resources strategy requires retaining workers who embody the organization's talent, loyalty, intellectual capital, and institutional history. Becoming more family-friendly is highly compatible with this.
A truly functional workplace culture consists of understandings among workers and management that build trust and the shared values of commitment, teamwork, and care. Supporting workers who need paid family leave is part of becoming a well-run company and country. That's why some top corporations and most countries already provide paid leave. Instead of focusing on who will be the next occupant of the White House, America's business interests should think about who resides in our houses: their employees and employees' loved ones who sometimes need care and attention. It is time for the giants of American society -- our business leaders -- to support progress toward a family-friendly America.