By Alexandra Zimmerman Safir


One year ago, the White House hosted its Summit on Working Families, bringing together businesses, economists, labor leaders, policymakers, advocates and ordinary citizens to discuss how to create a 21st century workplace that responds to the needs of its workers. Working families took center stage again last week at a panel at the U.S.-China Women’s Leadership Exchange and Dialogue (WE-LEAD). The panel focused on successful practices to promote labor force participation, and looked beyond national policy as a means of creating positive changes for workers.

While China has a national policy that allows for 98 days paid maternity leave, the United States remains the only developed country that does not guarantee paid family leave. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees workers in companies with more than 50 employees at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave and a return to their job. As such, the FMLA currently only covers about 60 percent of the American workforce. However, as Tina Tchen, Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, pointed out during the panel, while the United States needs to do better on this issue, there has been an increase in momentum in the last year. Many local and state governments, as well as companies, have stepped up to change their policies to better benefit workers and their families.

Creating policies that are conducive to workers’ needs is important for many reasons. As Betsey Stevenson, a member of the Council of Economic Advisors, explained on Tuesday’s panel, good workplace policies ensure all available talent is in the right places. Half of all parents have turned down a job because it would negatively affect their families, and if we can alleviate those constraints, we can increase productivity – which in turn will lead to economic growth. Creating workplace policies that address working families is not just the right thing to do for people, it is also the smart thing to do for businesses.

As Maggie FitzPatrick, Chief Communication Officer and Vice President, Global Communication and Public Affairs at Johnson & Johnson, discussed during the panel: businesses that have sound workplace policies in place for families – such as parental leave, paid sick leave, telework and flexible hours – are able to attract and retain the best possible employees and increase their global competitiveness. It is not a coincidence that when corporations introduce family friendly policies, their stock prices tend to go up. Fortune 500 companies found that, on average, firms’ stock prices rose 0.36% on the days following announcements of such policies.

In the absence of a national policy, it is up to corporations, as well as local and state governments to implement changes that would benefit working families. And over the past year, there has been slow, but steady progress.

In 2002, California became the first state to create a Paid Family Leave Program that provides paid income replacement for eligible works to allow them to bond with a newborn baby or an adopted or foster child, or to care for a sick parent, child, spouse or domestic partner. It is one of only three states that have a paid program (Rhode Island and New Jersey are the others). In July 2014, this program was expanded to allow for the care of siblings, grandparents and parents-in-law.

In April 2015, Massachusetts expanded its Parental Leave Policy, which already guaranteed eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave, to create a gender-neutral law that entitles both men and women to parental leave, and allows adoptive parents the same rights as biological parents. Additionally, this year, the cities of Boston and Seattle started offering paid maternity leave to their employees.

Additionally, corporations are starting offer generous parental leave policies. Johnson & Johnson, the world’s largest healthcare company, took the lead in this industry. According to FitzPatrick, after the White House Summit on Working Families, the company began to reevaluate its policies, acknowledging that in order for its employees to succeed, they must be in an environment that supports them. As of May 1st, Johnson & Johnson now offers gender-neutral parental leave (eight weeks paid leave) to biological parents, as well as adoptive single parents and same-sex couples.

Leading technology companies like Facebook, Apple, Google and Yahoo are known to have some of the most progressive parental leave policies in the country. Of these major tech companies, Facebook is the only one to provide equal leave policies (four months paid) for all parents, mother or father, biological or adoptive, and recently expanded family.

The majority of Americans support paid family leave, and there is a growing spotlight on this issue. Until the United States has a federal law that provides paid benefits for working families, local and state governments, as well as companies must take the lead in providing the benefits that best support their workers. Paid family leave, paid sick leave, flexible hours and telework do not just benefit workers and their families; these policies are also good for companies and for the economy.