Nearly every day, I thank my lucky stars that I live in this country.
But sometimes, I hate our country.
Twenty years ago, just before my first child was born, Congress enacted the Family Medical Leave Act. It was our country’s first (and still only) law that explicitly supports employees who need to take care of our loved ones.
Two decades later, 40% of Americans are not covered by FMLA. The landmark law is riddled with exceptions, loopholes, and stubborn anti-family prejudice.
Imagine: a salesman is injured in a freak car accident. While he is hospitalized, the company holds a quarterly award ceremony. Because he is physically unable to attend, the company denies him the award won for a client sale he spent over a year pursuing. And they decide not to give him the attending cash bonus.
Unfair? Ridiculous? Demoralizing?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
I saw this exact scenario play out at one of the Fortune 500 firms I worked for in the mid 2000s. The employee was a woman who could not attend the ceremony because she had gone into premature labor and had an emergency c-section. The company refused to give her the bonus she had clearly earned, claiming some bogus exception under FMLA, until I, as her manager, threatened a lawsuit. They paid up fortunately – for them.
The good news about FMLA is that it exists. During the last 20 years, its protection has allowed an estimated 100 million employees, mostly moms who’ve just given birth, to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave without losing their jobs.
Yet U.S. businesses demand that FMLA does not protect the following people:
- Employees who work for companies with 50 or fewer employees
- Part-time workers
- Employees who have worked for the company for less than 12 months
- Employees who have taken family leave within the last 12 months
Because people in these categories don’t ever get pregnant or have sick relatives, right?
Despite my disgust, I do see a thin silver lining. There is an opportunity, a competitive advantage, for companies who treat employees (and their neediest loved ones) with respect and ethical policies.
In my case, I had two children while working at Johnson & Johnson. The family-friendly corporation has company-subsidized daycare centers and generous maternity, paternity and sick-relative policies.
The day I told our human resources manager I was expecting my first baby, she looked at me and smiled.
“Good!” she said cheerfully. “Now you are never leaving.”
I stayed for ten years. I cried the day I left. Partially out of sadness that this wonderful chapter in my career was ending. Mostly because I was heart-broken about removing my children from the 50,000 square foot, I.M. Pei designed child development center with 10 certified teachers, two full time nurses on staff, and subsidized tuition.
I went on to work for another family-friendly company.
I left when it wasn’t quite family friendly enough.
Now, like many women, I work for myself – the most family-friendly employer I can envision.
Women, our nation’s caregivers, make up nearly 50% of our nation’s workforce. There are roughly 72 million of us at work on any given day. Fifty three percent of 15- to 50-year-old American women have children. There are over 10 million single mothers living with children younger than 18.
When will our country’s lawyers, Congressman, and CEOs understand that mothers and fathers can be good employees and wonderful caregivers – at the same time – as long as we get a little flexibility? And when will everyone agree that respecting caregiving is a quintessentially American value that strengthens our entire country and our country’s future?
FMLA is just the beginning of where we need to go.