Paid leave isn’t just about working parents

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New Jersey is getting a lot of press these days for taking the remarkable and hopefully trend-setting step of abolishing the death penalty. What’s getting less notice is Gov. Jon Corzine’s wimping out on what would have been the most generous paid leave for employees in the country.

And by generous, I actually mean reasonable. California is the only state that requires employers of more than 50 to offer paid leave for workers who need to care for their newborns or ill family members. We’re one of the only developed nations to require no paid leave at all. Of course, the Family and Medical Leave Act allows workers to take up to 12 weeks off for those reasons, but that time is unpaid.

Corzine and other Democratic lawmakers had backed the requirement of 10 weeks of paid leave. California offers six. But after big business balked, Corzine and his crew backed down–but not completely; it now offers to cover six weeks. According to the Star Ledger,

The proposal would grant paid time off to any worker dealing with a family medical crisis or the arrival of a new child. Workers would get two-thirds of their weekly salaries up to $502. The bill would make New Jersey the second state, after California, to offer some form of paid family leave.

Don’t get me wrong: six weeks is better than none. But it irks me that big employers still don’t realize what an important benefit this has become to workers. And by workers I mean all workers, not just working moms. Consider this excellent article in USA Today by Stephanie Armour titled “Workplace tensions rise as dads seek family time.” She begins be detailing the conflict between a Gen X dad who expects to work flexibly in order to care for his children, and his Boomer boss who thinks that’s preposterous.

Their situation reflects the conflicts that are becoming increasingly common in workplaces across the nation, as fathers press for more family time and something other than a traditional career path. As dads demand paternity leave, flexible work schedules, telecommuting and other new benefits, they’ve ignited what workplace specialists are calling the Daddy Wars.

Those Daddy Wars are not just rhetorical; they’re legal. Armour writes that

They’ve also prompted several Fortune 500 companies to begin pitching such family-friendly benefits to men — and inspired a new wave of workplace discrimination complaints filed by dads.

For years, women who say their employers have discriminated against them because of their care-giving roles have filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC has not released precise figures, but it reports that it now is seeing a shift: filings by fathers.

For example, the EEOC says, some employers have wrongly denied male employees’ requests for leave for child care purposes while granting similar requests from female employees. Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, fathers are allowed to take unpaid leave for the birth, adoption or medical illness of a child. They are allowed up to 12 weeks of leave in a year, although some states grant additional rights for dads.

Not to cast Boomers as the Brontosauruses of the work world. Many workers in their 40s and 50s are madly juggling their commitments to their jobs with their need to care for aged parents and needy teens.

What’s in it for employers, you ask? Our commitment; our loyalty; our continued good work. We’re not asking to work less, just to work differently. And on the unusual occasion we need to fly to Dubuque to care for a mother who’s broken her hip, we’d greatly appreciate the comfort of knowing we won’t lose our jobs.

How are your states handling these issues?