WASHINGTON — Few Americans have employers who give them paid family leave.
Jeannine Sato of North Carolina didn’t have paid leave, but figured she’d be covered for unpaid maternity leave under federal law when she had her first child.
She was unpleasantly surprised.
Sato described in a U.S. Senate hearing on Wednesday how her employer, a federally funded non-profit group that she didn’t name, declined to give her unpaid leave, a compressed work schedule or the opportunity to work from home after her daughter, now 7, was born.
The organization claimed an exemption under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for births, adoptions and care for sick family members.
“I was dumbfounded by the circumstances people were in when they had children,” Sato told the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families, chaired by Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and part of the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee.
In an interview afterward, Hagan said she called the hearing “to encourage more companies and small businesses in the U.S. to understand that it really will benefit their bottom line” if they provide paid family leave, contrary to what many company leaders think.
Hagan is in a highly competitive fight for re-election against Republican challenger Thom Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives. Paid family leave may have some popular appeal, but it’s not much of an issue in the election.
No legislation is in the offing that would require it and if there was, it would fall under the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee and not her her subcommittee. But she said she hoped the idea of paid leave would catch on.
“When workers are offered paid family leave, moms, dads, kids, businesses and the economy as a whole are all better off,” she said at the hearing.
Kevin Trapani, CEO of The Redwoods Group in Morrisville, N.C., said his company offered a variety of paid leaves, including unlimited paid sick days. People don’t abuse it, he said. In fact, since the company went from a maximum of five sick days a year to unlimited days, the number actually used on average went down to fewer than three, he said.
Turnover in his company, an insurance and consulting firm, is low, he said. “Paid leave users are more likely to return, which saves us the cost of interviewing, hiring and retraining.”
An unexpected benefit is that when others cover the work of a temporarily off-duty colleague, their skills grow, Trapani added.
Trapani said his employees work in a very demanding environment. “When we take care of them, they return terrific results to us and our customers,” he said. “People in a nurturing environment who are trusted don’t abuse privilege.”
The United States is one of only two countries that don’t guarantee paid maternity leave. The other one is Papua New Guinea, said Victoria S. Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington.
The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees only unpaid leave for births, adoptions and caring for sick family members, but millions of workers can’t afford to take it, Shabo said. She said that just over 60 percent of the workforce has access to unpaid leave under the 1993 law. Employees in small businesses and those who work part-time or haven’t been on the job for a year are excluded.
Twelve percent of private sector workers have paid family leave for a new child or care for a seriously ill family member, Shabo said. Only three states _ California, New Jersey and Rhode Island _ have paid family leave provisions.
Meanwhile, Sato, the witness who was denied unpaid maternity leave, returned to work six weeks after her daughter was born after using her vacation and sick time. Her husband received some unpaid leave from his job and using savings, they were able to get by.
“I can’t imagine what this would mean to a low-wage worker or a single parent,” she said.
Sato subsequently changed jobs and now directs Durham Connects, a visiting nurse program for parents of newborns that was established by Duke University and other partners. That job gave her three weeks of paid leave plus unpaid leave, and then a chance to work from home after the birth of her son, who’s now 4.
“I was recovered, rested and ready to come back to work,” she said.
Maryella Gockel, the flexibility strategy leader at Ernst & Young, a large auditing and business services firm, said paid family leave is cost effective because it costs up to two times a mid-level employee’s salary to hire and train a replacement.
“That retention leads to better profitability and better service to our clients,” she said.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who also attended the hearing and who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, said that paid family leave was also good for the federal budget as well. Women who take paid leave are 39 percent less likely to receive public assistance in the year after they have a child, Murray said.
Only committee Democrats attended the hearing.