Tuesday, October 6 , 2015, 3:37 pm | Fair 74º

Joe Conason: Success of Family and Medical Leave Act Should Humble the Far Right

By Joe Conason |

When President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act on Feb. 5, 1993, almost exactly 20 years ago as the first legislative act of his presidency, its establishment as law marked a progressive victory after nearly a decade of ferocious opposition by corporate lobbyists, Republican legislators, conservative media and right-wing pundits.

Leading the opposition was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose spokeswoman Virginia Lamp denounced the act as “a dangerous precedent.” (She would eventually marry Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and move on to employment with the Koch brothers.)

With the honorable exception of the Catholic Church and a number of moderate Republicans in Congress, the self-proclaimed “pro-family” forces in American political life eagerly aided and abetted the Chamber of Commerce’s attempt to kill the act. Mandating a federal right to unpaid leave, even if restricted to certain workers in larger businesses, would place the nation on a slippery path toward European socialism, or worse, according to the chamber and its Republican allies and impose untold damage on business.

But now we know, as with so many other warnings from the far right about the supposedly ruinous consequences of social progress, how the actual results have differed from those predictions. And with two decades of experience, it is clear that the difference has been dramatic.

Put simply, the act’s protections have proved vital for millions of families across the country, whether in times of joy or hardship. Debra Ness, the president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, which drafted the original bill and assembled the victorious coalition that supported it, estimates that the law has been used more than 100 million times “by women who needed medical care during difficult pregnancies, fathers who took time to care for children fighting cancer, adult sons and daughters caring for frail parents, and workers taking time to recover from their own serious illnesses.” The latest Department of Labor survey of employees and employers indicates that up to 14 million employees took leave in 2011.

Released this week to coincide with the act’s anniversary, that study not only demonstrates how vital it is to American families but how beneficial it has been for the national workforce and economy. Indeed, rather than imposing an insufferable burden on business, the act has enhanced productivity and profit as well as protecting children, the ill and the elderly.

According to the DOL study — which was subcontracted to Abt Associates, one of the country’s oldest and most respected private consulting firms — most employers have not found compliance particularly burdensome. Only 1 percent of the covered worksites told Abt that they had “great difficulty” in administering leave and 14 percent reported “some difficulty.” Fewer than 10 percent of worksites reported any negative effects on productivity, morale, absenteeism, turnover or “business profitability.” Some larger worksites had more problems, but overall, the vast majority reported that the act had posed no serious issues.

Most impressively, for every worksite that reported a negative impact on productivity, there were nearly three that said the impact has been positive; and for every worksite that reported a negative impact on profitability, there were nearly five that said the impact has been positive.

Encouraging as those statistics may be, they highlight a less encouraging fact — namely that America remains far behind other advanced industrial nations in the social benefits and protections provided to its working families. The United States is the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that lacks a national paid parental leave policy.

In a global study conducted by researchers at Harvard and McGill universities, the results revealed that all advanced countries and many developing nations — 169 out of 173 studied — offer guaranteed leave with income to women following childbirth, and 98 of these countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave. (The three other nations offering no paid leave whatsoever were Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.) The researchers found 66 countries that provide fathers with either paid paternity leave or a right to paid parental leave, with 31 countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave.

Aside from important changes providing leave to military families, initially left without coverage under the act, Congress has made no significant improvements in expanding coverage to workplaces with fewer than 50 employees — or in extending any protection to the growing millions of temporary and part-time workers who remain without any coverage.

The national experience over the years since Clinton put down his signing pen offers two clear lessons for Americans. First, we still have far to go in providing real support for families and children, especially when compared with similar countries; and second, we need not believe the warnings of economic doom that emanate from the right over any attempt to improve those conditions, such as Obamacare. All the hot air emitted in opposition to the Family and Medical Leave Act has long since evaporated, and all the hotheads who opposed it have long since moved on to new obsessions. But nobody should forget how wrong they were — and who really stood up for family values.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

comments powered by Disqus

» on 02.06.13 @ 08:49 PM

Joe there is the benefit, which few of us would deny is good and then there is the cost. We don’t know the full impact of the cost because it is not easy to separate it from all the other costs from added benefits, taxes, regulations all of which have a cumulative effect. What you and your progressives always fail to understand is that these costs have to be paid for, somewhere, somehow. Your leftist assumption is they are just taken out of the profit margin and mistakenly you assume that profit is what some over paid greedy CEO takes home in his wallet.

No Joe, the costs is added to the price of the product and if the market does not allow for it then it usually means that some part of that business just goes away to some place not requiring the benefit. In the end, the total cost of all non-productive benefits must be matched with an equal amount of surplus value added at the market. If not we run trade deficits which lower the standard of living for all but the top and eventually go bankrupt.

I don’t argue that benefits are nice to have, but you must have a robust growing wealth generating economy to support them or you have Greece. We don’t have a robust economy, we borrow our prosperity and the government just prints the currency it need to fuel its spending spree, while we ship half a trillion dollars in wealth offshore a year.

So how long before we hit the gutter Joe, and what good are benefits you can’t pay for?

» on 02.07.13 @ 01:18 PM

Progress always “costs” something. Some people would have no change, and no progress. Change frightens them, they worry that anything that makes life a little better for others will somehow have a net “cost” to them. That’s a selfish attitude.

It’s been 20 years, and the law doesn’t seem to have had even a marginal cost - unpaid maternity leave is actually unpaid. The benefit is that people can view themselves as a company asset, rather than an expendable commodity. And they don’t have to be in a union! Think of it - fair labor laws like this one reduce the need for collective bargaining!

Perhaps what the Bishop worries about is that a woman might be able to have a career and have a family, too. The Taliban would have no woman working in a career, and much as he might hate the idea, the Bishop has more in common with them than with the majority of Americans.

Comparing us to Greece just shows how ignorant you are about Greece and how that country got where it is. The idea that we must be generating huge wealth (which we already do, but only for very few) before we can behave fairly and allow people to take time off to have a baby and come back to their jobs after, well that’s just plain un-American. Perhaps you should worry about countries that do not allow change, places where whole sectors of the workforce are relegated to dirt floors and pit toilets because fairness is precluded by conservative fear. Places like Afghanistan, India, and Saudi Arabia.

» on 02.07.13 @ 03:02 PM

Blah, Blah, whine, somebody take care of me, blah, blah. All I said ramjet, since your reading comprehension is so severely limited, is that you can have what ever benefit you want when you demonstrate the ability to PAY for it.

We are in debt publically and privately. That debt is 5 times as large as all the combined liquid wealth of the hated 1%. You cannot pay for your precious benefits by taxing your way out of it. It has to be paid for by work actually done. Earned income ramjet, not taxes and not gambling casino Wall Street. I don’t know how that simple logic continues to escape your tiny mind. But you and a good chunk of the rest of this country are living in a fantasy land with a fairy dust economy. At some point buster, the shit will hit the fan and that debt will have to be paid.

Like I said, benefits are nice, but unless its balanced with earned wealth you will go broke.

» on 02.07.13 @ 07:51 PM

Buster? Say, are you that washed up dame who used to write “On The Ranch?” Why, I oughta…

Are you a time traveler visiting us from the 1940’s?

The article isn’t about taxes, it’s about the success of unpaid temporary leave for family issues like sick children, maternity, & etc.

Look, Bishop Taliban: you obviously don’t have ANYTHING else to do - at least get this right. The article wasn’t posted so that we could all carefully read your insipid comments - though I sometimes can’t help myself. It was posted to be read by you BEFORE you started your blab, blab, blabbing.

» on 02.08.13 @ 12:25 PM

The fact that you still don’t get it is rather disturbing. Like I said, the benefits are great, but you still have to pay for them. Like it or not, taking a leave of absence, paid leave, vacation, sick time is not working, meaning you are not producing. So your time off has to be paid for by those who still are or you when you get back. Get it?

Health care, PTO and all the other nice perks of modern employment are a COST. Costs have to be PAID for. When you get that through your pea brain and then figure out how, then we can talk about how well the benefit worked.

» on 02.08.13 @ 01:19 PM

Listen here, Buster! It’s dames like you that get pea-brained ideas in their little heads! Why, I oughta…!

If somebody takes unpaid leave of absence, which is what the article was about, it is unpaid. If you are worried about their productivity, perhaps you are simply thinking very short term. But then, I assume that you think.

Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it!

» on 02.08.13 @ 09:48 PM

Rambler, unpaid leave is still a cost. Yes it’s not as big to an employer; they just have to absorb the lack of manpower for a while. But economically it’s still unproductive, meaning the cost of someone not working has to be made up somewhere.

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