In March IWF hosted “Government and the Time Bind: A Discussion of ‘Family-Friendly’ Workplace Policies” on Capitol Hill. Given media attention to and public concern about the “time bind” millions of working parents face every day, IWF assembled a panel of experts with wide-ranging viewpoints to offer critiques of current government policies meant to help working families, and to offer suggestions for the future.

Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-WA) introduced the subject of the day’s discussion by noting her own familiarity with the experience of juggling work and family responsibilities. She remarked on the often-overlooked “family-friendliness” of policies such as tax reform. Many women with innovative ideas and a desire for more flexible work arrangements have started their own businesses, Congresswoman Dunn said, and our country’s tax system should not sap the strength of these 9.1 million entrepreneurs. The congresswoman pointed particularly to the power of the Internet for today’s working women — and the need to keep this important conduit free from burdensome taxation. Tax reform and other policies that encourage innovation and flexibility are the kinds of “family-friendly” initiatives the government should engage in.

Christine Stolba
Director of Economic Projects, IWF

Ask someone for their opinion of a “family-friendly” policy such as paid family leave, and you’ll probably get a response such as “that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea,” or “Why not? Lots of other countries have paid leave.” Newspapers and magazines tout the wisdom of generous benefits for working parents; TV commentators note the difficulty parents face balancing their work and home lives. With more women — and particularly more mothers — in the paid workforce, and more Americans working longer hours, family-friendly initiatives have become the quintessential “feel-good” policies of our day and age.

In public discussion of these policies, there is a tendency to assume that they are unambiguously good things. And in an election year, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn’t doing something for working families — the family- friendly label is pure gold on the campaign trail, which is why we see people from all points on the political spectrum embracing it.

But if we are all so strongly supportive of families, why do we so often end up disagreeing about what policies are best for them? I suggest that it is because not all of these policies are really good for families — or for the American economy, for that matter — despite how well-intentioned they may be in theory.

To many participants in this debate, the difficulty women have in balancing work and family responsibilities is not simply a natural outgrowth of their movement into the labor force — it is a workplace discrimination issue. Since women don’t have access to paid leave or subsidized childcare, the argument goes, they are at a distinct disadvantage in the working world.

However, that argument fails to account for the powerful impact and consequences of personal choice. The ability to choose what you want for your life is the hallmark of a free society. Many women — and more and more men as well — happily choose to scale back their time at work in order to spend more time with their families. The cost they bear in terms of lower compensation and advancement is a tradeoff many workers are willing to make. In a free market — and with low unemployment — men and women are free to seek work with employers that meet their particular demands.

But for many other participants in the family-friendly debate, the government’s role is to ensure equality of opportunity for all workers — not to use misguided policies and mandates to favor certain groups of workers over others.

One of the reasons I express such skepticism about things like mandatory paid leave is that proponents of these policies rarely consider or honestly calculate their real costs.

In embracing many of these family-friendly policies we are embracing a more paternalistic and intrusive role for government, which creates a potential for abuse of power. When your boss starts keeping track of every illness and doctor’s appointment you have in order to comply with government reporting requirements, some degree of privacy is lost.

Ultimately, I think it is wrong to assume that the federal government is better at figuring out what working parents need than either individual employers or working parents themselves.

Let’s continue to encourage employers to develop creative solutions to help their workers — including comp time, flextime, job sharing, and telecommuting — but let’s not tie their hands with government mandates. The beauty of our current economy is that it encourages creativity and continues to support the entrepreneurial spirit for which this country is famous — a spirit that can flourish in a factory or in cyberspace.

Centralized government mandates stifle that spirit by installing inflexible standards in the workplace. For all workers — but especially for women — a family-friendly workplace is one that encourages flexibility and equal opportunity.

Deanna Gelak
Executive Director of the Family and Medical Leave Act Corrections Coalition, founded by the Society for Human Resource Management

It has become abundantly clear that the challenges facing so many working families are finally beginning to receive much of the attention they deserve. What is still unclear, however, is what is ultimately the best and most practical solution to help alleviate the problems that parents who work outside the home experience every day.

The most publicized solution for working families is more government mandates. But we have practical evidence to suggest that government intervention cannot solve all of our problems and in some cases can make them worse by providing a false sense of security. There are often unintended consequences that can actually hurt workers in the long run.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a prime example. This law was designed to provide job protection for new parents to spend time with their newborn or adopted children. The law also provides an employee with time off to care for a seriously ill family member or for the employee’s own serious health condition. However after Congress passed the law, the United States Department of Labor wrote the implementing regulations — the details of how the law would be applied and enforced — and the law has now drifted far from its original intent.

Because of the Labor Department’s shortsighted and confusing regulations, the FMLA has come to stand for the “Far More Leave Than Anyone Intended Act.” The overly broad regulations make it difficult for employers to prevent abuses of FMLA leave, allowing some workers to demand significant time off for minor or questionable conditions.

What’s more, there are bills pending in Congress to expand the FMLA to allow federally protected leave for non-medical reasons like attending a child’s soccer game, parent-teacher conferences, and community service. This may make a great sound bite for politicians, but issues such as the various costs of the program, employee abuse, and coworker resentment are ignored.

Government mandates sound great on the surface. They are attractively wrapped and packaged, but they come with a hidden price tag. We hear that the government authorizes you to have more time with your family. It seems free. It seems simple. It seems wonderful. But, big government discourages innovation and punishes progressive employers. While it’s easy to talk a good game on work and family issues, the Labor Department’s confusing and contradictory regulations have hurt America’s employees.

Free enterprise and individual rights advocates should not allow themselves to become intimidated. Unfortunately, bad policy can be disguised with good rhetoric. But, if lawmakers choose to stand confidently in the gale force of pre-election winds and defend the policies that they know to be best, American families and voters will thank them for it.

Elinor Burkett
Author of The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America
Cheats the Childless

In the summer of 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed into a law a bill that would transform the American workplace. For decades, the nation’s employers had paid male workers more than they paid female workers in precisely the same jobs — a practice justified with the argument that men needed more money and greater fringe benefits because they had families to support.

In battling that tradition, the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor developed a revolutionary concept: workplace compensation should be based not on need, not on family status or fertility, but on the excellence of an employee’s work or the length of his or her service.

For almost 40 years, that principle of equal pay for equal work has guided the American workplace. But, over the past decade, in the name of creating a more “family-friendly” America, that principle has begun to erode.

Federal law now guarantees new parents time off from work after childbirth with full benefits and job security. Mothers and fathers have the right to leave when their kids are sick and, in some states, when their kids are playing soccer or performing in school plays.

Simultaneously, employers have been pressured by everyone from the President to the leadership of the National Organization for Women into beefing up the fringe benefits offered to parents, into treating childcare problems and school events with more flexibility, into subsidizing on-site or near-site day care, into funding health insurance packages for employees’ full families.

Who pays for these benefits? And where does this newly-liberated work time come from? We have been told that the struggle for family-friendly workplace benefits is a battle between beleaguered parents and business owners — suggesting that parental privilege is being underwritten by corporate America. But don’t believe it.

When women take extended maternity leave, when mothers and fathers claim up to twelve weeks off to be with their newborns, when parents show up late because their babysitters don’t appear, or leave early because the day care center is closing, few employers spend a dime to replace them. Rather, they transfer their work to other employees — usually childless men and women, on the theory that non-parents don’t have much to do in their lives — who wind up doing two jobs for a single wage.

Simultaneously, the childless are awarded fringe benefits packages worth thousands of dollars less than those designed for parents. In family-friendly America, then, parents receive more compensation for less work, and the childless have become victims of the same type of wage discrimination that prevailed prior to 1963.

If we, as a nation, are serious about the principle of equal pay for equal work, we can’t make blithe exceptions to its application. And if we’re going to discard it, let’s not slip the change in through the back door and pretend that we are not violating our own principles. Let’s have a national discussion about how labor is valued and whether, in fact, we believe it wise to turn the clock back to the 1950s and reprogram our wage structure around fertility, personal obligation, and need.