Thomas E. Perez: Take the lead on paid leave

06/29/2014 12:00 AM

06/27/2014 5:28 PM

Forty years ago this weekend, my father died of a heart attack at the age of 52. I was 12, so as time goes by I remember less and less about him. But one vivid memory is of him always coming to my baseball games. And so when I had children, I promised myself that I would do the same – not just to be in the stands cheering for them, but on the sidelines coaching them.

Being U.S. labor secretary is a demanding job, but I still have the flexibility to coach youth sports, to help with homework, to be there for important rites of passage. My daughter’s high school graduation a few weeks ago conflicted with a Cabinet meeting, but there was never any doubt what I would do, or what President Obama wanted me to do.

If I were a low-wage worker, however, I might have been docked half a day’s pay to see Amalia get her diploma. That’s because we are one of the few countries on Earth where paid family leave and paid sick days are not the law of the land.

Last week the White House, the Labor Department and the Center for American Progress convened the first White House Summit on Working Families to shine a spotlight on this issue and others that speak directly to the anxieties facing families of all kinds every day.

Oftentimes, it’s not just about missing a ballgame or a dance recital. The absence of paid leave threatens the jobs and undermines the economic security of millions of people across the country.

More than 715,000 Kansas women work, making up 47 percent of the state workforce, and 43,443 Kansans gave birth between 2010 and 2011. As well, more than 500,000 Kansas children (73 percent) live in families where all parents work. Legislation to pass paid family leave and paid sick leave laws would allow these families to properly take care of their families without jeopardizing their livelihood.

More employers are recognizing that providing paid leave is not just the right thing to do by their workers; it’s the smart thing to do for their business. Strong, competitive companies – from multinational professional services firm Ernst and Young to New Belgium Brewery – have implemented progressive leave policies and thrived not in spite of them but because of them.

Congress has shown little inclination to act so far. But California, Rhode Island and New Jersey have already passed paid leave laws, with energetic grassroots campaigns in several more states. Sometimes, change comes to Washington, D.C., not from Washington. That’s what happened with unpaid leave a generation ago, and we’re seeing a similar movement in the states on minimum wage.

The Labor Department wants to encourage that process. We’ve announced new grants for states to conduct feasibility studies about the development or implementation of paid leave. As part of the larger commitment to working families, the president also announced last week that he is directing us to invest $25 million to help people who want to enroll in job training programs but have difficulty accessing child care.

We are also investing in research about lessons learned in states innovating with paid leave. After a decade in California, according to one prominent academic study, it has succeeded in helping families without hurting businesses. About 90 percent of employers report positive effects or no negative effects on employee productivity, retention or morale.

A great country shouldn’t force people into wrenching choices between the job they need and the family they love.

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