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Some Pay a High Price for Taking Paid Leave

October 10, 2002|CARYL RIVERS | Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.

Paid family leave, which goes into effect in 2004 in California, is a major step toward making the workplace family-friendly. Now what's needed is an attitude change in the corporate culture.

Family leave won't work if employees don't take it because they fear they will be stigmatized as slackers. Too often, those who take such leaves are considered unambitious and are shuttled off to permanent sidings labeled mommy track, daddy track or taking-care-of-granny track.

Taking a leave can signal to a superior that you are not willing to give your all for Consolidated Crankshaft. And there always are others who are.

Those who take leaves do pay a price. In 1999, management professors Michael Judiesch and Karen Lyness of the City University of New York issued the first major study--involving 11,815 subjects--on the effects of family leaves on managers' careers. They found that those who took leaves over a five-year period, 1990 to 1995, received fewer promotions and salary increases than managers who did not take them.

If this doesn't change, everybody will lose: employers and employees, men and women.

Though more women than men take unpaid family leaves allowed under federal law, it's almost certain that men will be doing so with greater frequency.

Men increasingly are being called on to care not only for children but for elderly parents as well. With today's smaller families, men may have no female siblings who will take on this chore, as sisters often did in the past. Today, you are as likely to see a son going to a doctor's office with an elderly parent as a daughter.

The fastest-growing segment of the workforce is single fathers. These men face the "mommy" problems of finding day care and getting time off for pediatrician's appointments and soccer games.

And more often, family finances dictate that it's Dad, not Mom, who should take a leave. Forty percent of college-educated women today earn more than their husbands. One couple I know had their first child just as the wife was approaching a demanding medical residency. The husband, who made less than his wife, took time off to do the major child care for a year.

A recent national survey by the Radcliffe Public Policy Center found that men between 20 and 39 were more likely than older men to give family matters top billing over career success. Eighty-two percent put family first, and 71% said they would sacrifice part of their pay to have more time with their families.

If companies turn a deaf ear to these concerns, they will be dramatically reducing their talent pool, turning away valuable workers who want to have lives outside the office.

The Boston Bar Assn. recently put the issue starkly in its task force report on work-family conflicts: "We are in danger of seeing law firms evolve into institutions where only those who have no family responsibilities--or worse, are willing to abandon those responsibilities--can thrive." This assessment applies to much of corporate America.

Family leave can be a boon to companies as well as employees.

In today's fast-paced, globalized workplace, employee stress is a major cost to companies. The General Motors strike of 1994, for example, wasn't about higher wages but about workers' complaints that they couldn't keep up the pace, physically and emotionally. Recent nurses' strikes over mandatory overtime reflect the same concern. For working couples, not having the flexibility to deal with family issues is a major source of illness-producing stress.

Companies can cut down on costs and retain good workers with family-friendly policies, including family leaves.

CEOs are starting to see that the family lives of their workers are their business. Some firms are contracting with day-care providers for special rates for their employees, and a consortium of major U.S. companies has called for increased spending on preschool.

Research shows that such policies reduce burnout and absenteeism, improve employee loyalty and reduce turnover. Family-friendly policies are congenial not only to individual families but to the health of the American economy, the bottom line and the social fabric of the nation.

All in all, a real bargain.

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