Monday, November 25, 2013

How do we fix the work-life balance for everyone?

Over the last generation, we've seen a lot of changes. These days, more than two-thirds of children have two parents that are working full time. Meanwhile, those parents are simultaneously responsible for elderly, babyboomer dependents---which cuts into their financial responsibilities as well as their time. Add on other vital hobbies, leisure, a social life, and other priorities, and we see that balancing work and life is getting more and more difficult.

This was the challenge that Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University addressed in her recent seminar on “Work-Family Policy in the United States.”

Some private companies have allowances for personal leave, but low-income workers, who wouldn’t be able to pay for supplementary help (like babysitters or nurses), don’t necessarily benefit from this. So there’s clearly a need for the public sector to get involved.

While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 requires companies with more than 50 employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, the United States does not have paid maternity leave. Some of the states that are considering laws of that nature---California, Washington, New Jersey, and Rhode Island among them---are the same ones that currently have Temporary Disability Insurance. TDI is a publicly funded pool of money (taken from a small amount of payroll tax) that provides about 55% of wages for employees that are temporarily unable to work for up to six weeks, and job protection upon their return. Of course, when the US Supreme Court mandated that TDI must cover maternity leave as well, no other states adopted it.

Some other options for assisting with work-life balance have been paid sick leave, flexible work hours (outside the 9-5 box), and assisted care. Currently, child and elderly care only exist in a very expensive private market, while middle income families are often eligible for tax credits. Lower income families receive some subsidies---and since the welfare reform of 1994, HeadStart programs have been expanded to care for younger children. But those programs still cover only 30% of eligible families due to a lack of funding.

So what’s the next step?

One big challenge is simply framing the issue. The feminist movement in the US has been reluctant to talk about family issues out of fear that doing so will hamper equality in the workplace.

Instead, Professor Waldfogel has proposed something different: speak more broadly of the importance of work-life balance for not just fathers and mothers---but for caregivers. And more broadly, for those who have responsibilities and personal priorities outside of work---a balance is important not just to one’s self, but to an employee’s health, sanity, and ensuing contributions to hir organization.

Frankly, the nature of work has changed in America, and not necessarily for the better. We value even the perception of quantity over quality; as Anne-Marie Slaughter rightly wrote, “more time in the office does not always mean more ‘value added’.”

While we rethink the work-life balance, we really ought to reconsider the work-work balance itself.

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