Work-Family Legal Update (Viva Rhode Island!)

Rhode Island becomes the third state to require paid parental leave, and a bill that would support and protect employees who request flexibility and workplace family accommodations has been introduced to Congress. Here’s my analysis of these legal issues.

Viva Rhode Island for becoming the 3rd state with required paid parental leave
Viva Rhode Island for becoming the 3rd state with required paid parental leave

(Quick disclaimer: I am not a lawyer*)

It is no secret that the US is way behind all other industrialized countries in terms of work-family policy. As I reported last week:

As you can see in this chart, we’re one of 4 of 178 countries (and the only Western or industrialized nation) to not have a law mandating paid parental leave. US law only requires that a new parent can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and have their job held for them, through the Family and Medical Leave Act). Only three US states have mandated paid parental leave. Over 50 countries require paid paternity leave; the US, not so much.

But there have been two recent developments that may represent progress on this front:

Rhode Island

Rhode Island just passed a law creating a four-week paid leave entitlement for employees, joining California and New Jersey as the only states in which employers are legally obligated to provide paid parental leave.

In all three states the costs associated with paid leave are funded through a small tax deduction out of every paycheck- very similar to how disability insurance is handled. In NJ, the average employee’s payment into the system is $33 a year, it is $36 in California; I presume Rhode Islands’ is in line with those.

While this funding mechanism takes a burden off employers, it does create a system in which all employees are paying into a system for a benefit from which they may not collect.

On the one hand, some will bristle at having all employees, including those without children, subsidizing those who choose to have children. On the other, society as a whole benefits when families are supported and parents have the resources to raise their children well.

NJ’s and California’s policies seem to have successful and mostly well-received. Data on the use of paid parental leave is hard to come by, however (any out there have any data on this?). It will be interesting to see how the implementation of the law in RI plays out, and what its impact will be.

US Congress

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) have proposed the Flexibility for Working Families Act (H.R. 2559, S. 1248), which states that employees have a right to request a family-related workplace accommodation (e.g., a change to or flexibility in work time or place flexibility). Some specifics:

Upon receiving a request, an employer would be required to hold a meeting with the employee to discuss his or her application and provide a written decision regarding the application “within a reasonable period” after the meeting. If the application is rejected, the employer would be required to provide a reason for the denial. The employer would be permitted to propose an alternative change to the employee’s hours, times, place, and amount of notification of schedule assignments… The measure also contains anti-retaliation provisions.

This law would not mean that employers would have to accommodate employee requests, just that they would have to have a meeting to discuss requests and then fully consider and formally respond to them. Further, a supervisor couldn’t use an employee request as a negative factor when making future promotion, training or compensation decisions.

These are the types of discussions that good supervisors/employers should already be having with their employees. There’s nothing radical here. But not all workplaces are supportive, and the law would give employees some assurances that their family concerns will be considered and not held against them**.

For the time being, this bill has no chance in passing our dysfunctional Congress, but it merits strong consideration.

Of Two Minds

Culture changes slowly based on the accumulation of thousands of smaller decisions. The very discussion of these laws may send a signal that work-family is indeed a legitimate business issue, and may begin to change the thinking of human resources departments and supervisors in many companies.

The work-family advocate in me thinks this can only be a good thing. Having set legal protections may be of special importance to fathers, who face stronger corporate and societal pressures to prioritize employment/career over family.

The businessperson in me, however, doesn’t respond well to governmental solutions to business and societal problems.

In an ideal world, employers would be far-sighted enough to understand that acknowledging and accommodating work-family demands helps attract, retain and get the best out of a high-quality workforce. Considering the competition for highly qualified workers, you would think this is all the incentive employers would need.

But considering how far the US is behind other countries when it comes to parental leave and other work-family accommodations, I think some legal push, at this time, is welcome and long overdue.

What do you think about paid parental leave? About the proposed US law? Any experiences to share? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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*Many thanks to blog reader Kari Palazzari, who has a law degree (but emphasizes that she is not a practicing lawyer), who generously read an earlier draft of the article to make sure I’m representing these laws correctly. She also raised a few ideas that have improved this article. Thank you!!!!

** The trouble with employment law protection is that there are often many different criteria for decisions and it is very hard to establish whether one particular factor (in this case, revealing yourself to be “insufficiently dedicated” to your career) was the determining factor for a adverse decision.  As a result, the impact of this legislation may be less than what advocates anticipate.

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