Published: Thursday, July 23, 2009 12:07 PM EDT
Over the course of almost everyone’s life there are role reversals. The first 20 or so years mom and dad take care of you. The next two decades you are mom or dad. Then you take care of mom and dad, and finally you’re the mom or dad needing care.
Mixed in there are the job, staycations, sports, milestones, and a lot of schedule juggling. Families need time to be families, and all too often that time — especially when it’s time needed for care — competes with the work schedule.
It would be great if our lives were mapped out so emergency kid-care is only needed after 5 p.m. Or ER visits and subsequent rehab would only require weekend duty. In the idyllic world, no care commitment would take more than a few hours and wouldn’t disrupt the sleep cycle or work schedule. Right ….
Rearing children, helping mom and dad transition from active to retired lives, or caring for someone with a debilitating illness can be a 24/7 energy-draining commitment. It’s in our nature, culture, and being to be predisposed to put loved ones first, above all else. It’s a priority issue for most everyone. Polls suggest it’s so important that workers would trade pay for more work-time flexibility, so they would have the time for family care.
That said, one would think the structure around the rest of our world would be more family friendly. But it’s not. Time is money, and time away impacts the business bottom line. Even though family care is a priority for the workforce, employers have a natural resistance to accommodating a caring schedule.
Some of that resistance was tempered 16 years ago as Congress passed the Family Medical Leave Act. Sen. Chris Dodd led the charge to make sure employers guaranteed time off so family members could care for loved ones. While FMLA allows up to 12 weeks off in a 12-month period, there is significant noncompliance and resistance. And that is leave without pay. Few can afford to take it.
In a report issued by the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center, titled “Family-Friendly Workplaces: Do Unions Make A Difference?” authors Jenifer MacGillvary and Nesty Firestein concluded that nearly half of covered establishments ignore one or more FMLA provisions, including the maternity-leave provision. In addition, not all workers are aware of or understand time-off rights. Adding to the strain: Unpaid leaves, even for those who take them, can severely impact family cash flow.
As a nation, our collective desire for family care doesn’t quite match up with the necessity to care.
That study also looks at the family-friendly workplace and asks if there is a difference between union and nonunion environments. Not surprisingly, there is: A unionized workplace dramatically helps working families.
The report concludes that unions increase compliance with FMLA, ensure paid sick leave for employees and their children, provide for flexibility in schedules, and have more families covered by health insurance — by big margins. For instance, companies with any unionized employees are 1.7 times more likely to comply with FMLA than nonunion companies. Almost half of unionized hourly workers have access to paid leave, versus 29 percent of those without union representation. The report can be found at http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/.
Unfortunately, gains in improving family-friendly workplaces take effort, since most employers tend not to simply hand that kind of benefit over, even though it’s the right thing to do. Union members, like everyone else, put a high priority for family time and have worked hard to assure it.
But tough economic times and fewer union contracts are taking a toll on family leaves. One can only hope that when it’s our turn to be on the receiving side of the care, someone is there. It would be tragic if the time to care is put in reverse.
Leo Canty is executive secretary of the Connecticut AFL-CIO and chairman of the board of the Connecticut Health Foundation. He lives in Windsor.
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