North Carolina isn’t exactly a family-friendly work state; we lack paid family leave, protections for pregnant and nursing mothers, and a dearth of options for low paid workers who need sick time. In fact, a recent report from the National Partnership for Women and Families gave the Tar Heel state a “D” for its lack of support for working new parents.
The report, which was released in late June, assigns point values to progressive policies that protect jobs when parents take leave, accommodate pregnant women, and give state employees paid and protected leave. Of the 14 factors the Partnership scored, North Carolina only had two—longer family leave for state employees and access to family leave for workers who have less time on the job.
For all the other metrics (including mandated flexible sick time, and family leave for workers in small businesses), North Carolina came up short. Although we meet federal standards—such as giving unpaid family leave to full-time employees at large businesses– we fail to improve upon those laws, a fact which leaves workers statewide in the lurch.
A national call to action
In late June, the White House teamed up with the Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress for a Summit on Working Families. Leaders in politics and business shared their experiences and dreams for family-first policies.
One common theme at the Summit was the need for flexibility. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Second Lady Jill Biden all shared personal stories of times when they weighed their children’s health against a deadline at work. They joked about sending kids to school with low-grade fevers: “It’s not 100! It’s only 99,” Michelle Obama laughed, recalling sending her marginally ill daughters to school when she needed to go to work in order to keep her job.
For millions of workers across the country, sick kids can create an economic crisis. Although the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has been in place since 1993 to give parents and caregivers 12 unpaid weeks off for a birth or seriously ill family member, many workers can’t afford to take the time off or work in jobs where they are ineligible for leave.
In North Carolina, only 20% of new mothers qualify for FMLA leave, and of those who do qualify, only a small minority receive pay during those 12 weeks. As a result, the majority of NC mothers who return to work after a birth do so before their federally allowed three months end. This problem isn’t limited to North Carolina; only three states have laws that require employers to give parents paid leave.
During the Summit, President Obama called for a law that would fund Family Medical Leave by taxing wages. Although it would only amount to 2 cents per $10 earned for the average employee, this plan has not gained traction. White House staffers receive 6 weeks of paid leave for a birth or to care for an ailing family member, but all other federal employees are not yet afforded the same benefit.
Obama admitted frustration at the current policies. “There is only one developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave, and that is us,” Obama said. “It’s time to change that.”
Benefits for everyone
Back in 1993, before the FMLA was passed, business owners and politicians decried the upcoming policy change, claiming it was bad for business. The 10 years after the act was implemented show that the policy actually increased outcomes for businesses. In more than 94% of cases, businesses either broke even or lost a negligible amount of money by complying with the law and allowing workers to take time off without losing their jobs.
Similarly, in California where workers can now receive 55% of their wages for 6 weeks of medical leave, workers are returning to work after maternity leave in higher numbers, and fathers are taking paternity leave in record numbers. These Californian parents report higher workplace satisfaction and are less likely to leave a job due to family concerns. The California law is funded by paycheck deductions totaling roughly $27 a year for the average employee.
Pregnant mothers who receive worksite accommodations, and nursing mothers whose employers go above and beyond to allow them to pump, also fare better. They are happier, more likely to stay with their employer, and their children experience long-term health, possibly as an effect of having a parent who can flex time to stay home with them, instead of sending them off to daycare with a marginal fever.
According to the Partnership report, more time off for a new child and flexible work schedules even decrease infant mortality. A 10-week extension in paid leave has been correlated with a 4% decrease in infant deaths, and children whose parents take family leave in the first few months of their lives are far more likely to be seen for regular doctor checkups.
Moving forward in NC
North Carolina is not alone in its regressive family policies. In fact, there is not a single state in the Southeast that received higher than a grade “D” on the Partnership’s report. This puts the state in a position to move forward with laws that benefit families, and snag talented workers from nearby states.
More than 62% of North Carolina voters support the creation of a paid family leave program, yet it has not been a priority for lawmakers. The next step is to send North Carolina to the front of the pack by implementing policies that not only meet federal standards, but exceed them.
There’s no reason all nursing moms in North Carolina shouldn’t get breaks, or that state workers who take time off to care for a kid shouldn’t be able to use their sick days. In more than 71% of state households, all parents work. These families shouldn’t face a choice between taking care of their health and keeping their job.