Parents today are often torn between their children and their work, but what if this didn’t have to be the case?
This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes back Patrick T. Brown, author and Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, to discuss some policies that can be implemented that would make our work places more family friendly. In both the public and private sectors, Patrick recommends some changes that can help parents maintain a healthy work-life balance.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Achieving work-life balance is a goal for many of us, especially in families with young children, but have you ever thought this balance is good for our economy?
Well, Patrick T. Brown recently wrote an article discussing the need for good public policies supporting families in the workplace but also encouraging employers to see how important their decisions can be in helping their employees’ families thrive. Patrick Brown is an economist who sees a vital link between families that work well and a thriving economy. He has an undergraduate degree in political science and economics from Notre Dame, a Master’s in Public Administration from Princeton, and he’s a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Patrick Brown, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.
PATRICK T. BROWN: Always great to be on. Thanks so much for having me.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I think it’s important to begin by laying out what some people’s lives look like who work in jobs that are not set up to support this work-life balance. Can you draw us a picture?
PATRICK T. BROWN: Yeah. Certainly, in the wake of the pandemic so many parents have been able to work from home or find new flexible schedules, and that’s been a great boom to them. And that’s wonderful, and we should celebrate that and recognize that that’s not the case for a lot of parents, especially those who are working in the service sector where there’s no such thing as working from home if you’re working at a restaurant or working on a factory floor or something. And so recognizing that a lot of those jobs are very conducive to family life, but then some — the way that employers have optimized their scheduling algorithms and things like that can leave employees on the short end of the stick. If you don’t know your schedule more than a couple of days in advance, it’s really hard to have a stable family life because you have to organize childcare not, you know, 9 to 5 every day but just whenever your schedule tells you that you’re going to be on the clock. And so some of those practices that we sort of accept as the way the business is done aren’t well suited to the sort of modern realities of family life when so many families are headed by a single parent or have two parents who are both working.
So helping employers find ways of easing some of that burden to recognize the specific demands that are on parents I think is a really important goal.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right. So give us some specifics. What are some ways that employers can support their employees’ lives better, and why or how can it actually benefit that business?
PATRICK T. BROWN: Sure. Well, so one example would be something like childcare benefits. If you’re a working parent, it’s a load of your mind to know that the cost of childcare, which can be — as a lot of folks know — can be very expensive is being shared with your employer. Some employers are very generous with childcare, but that’s because they recognize that having that peace of mind for parents helps them be a little bit more predictable as a worker. If you are not trying to scramble to put together childcare at the last minute but have a stable arrangement with a relative or a friend or a childcare center or whatever that looks like, it’s easy for you to show up on time and not have to have the sort of chaotic schedule.
Another one that I think is really easy that businesses could do is when it comes to family and medical leave, right now most businesses, you are required to provide medical leave or family leave to employees who have been there for a year or more, if they hit a certain hourly work threshold. And I understand why Congress passed the law the way that they did, but if you’re a new mom or somebody who is expecting and you change jobs, you might be ineligible for the protections of six weeks of unpaid leave that you would otherwise be eligible for. So businesses that want to be accommodating to expectant parents or new moms or new parents should be thinking about getting rid of some of those bureaucratic hurdles to, again, this is unpaid leave so it’s not going to break the bank but recognizing that, hey, sometimes life happens and you have a baby right after you get a new job that maybe you weren’t expecting but we should be putting the family first and if that means helping businesses figure out ways of smoothing those obstacles, I think that’s where the burden needs to be on rather than expecting parents to just figure it out on their own.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Why does it help these businesses? What kind of motivation might you give to businesses both large and small to provide these kinds of accommodations?
PATRICK T. BROWN: Well, first of all, I think it’s important to recognize that the labor market that we’re in right now is one in which businesses are scrambling for workers. It’s not where we were a year ago, but, certainly, compared to where we were even a decade ago with so many businesses looking for jobs so many people looking to hire, a lot of the mentality needs to shift from how can I cut my costs as much as possible to what can I do to make my business an appealing place for workers to want to work. A lot of that is wages, but certainly benefits oriented towards families making sure that your coverage of childcare or childbirth and your insurance offerings is generous enough I think can be a way of attracting workers. And then also thinking about the responsibilities that businesses have, there is all of this talk in the business world about ESG, which is environmental and social responsibility, which is good — we should all be thinking about being responsible citizens — but part of that means investing in our workers in our communities and we all know that strong families are the backbone of strong communities.
And so if you’re an employer or somebody that is in business, making sure that you’re thinking about your employees through the lens of their roles as fathers and mothers but also as employees as well can help think about, okay, what are the benefits that we’re providing and what can we do to make them a little more family friendly and recognize that this will help us in the long run, again, be a more attractive place to work and also invest in our employees over the long term and help them feel a little more secure with all of the responsibilities that are on their plate.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right. So investing in people, I mean that’s a good concept. So what about these workers who find themselves in a position where it’s almost just unsustainable. Their hours are unsure, or the demands are such that they can’t seem to strike a balance with their family life. Do you feel like they are in a position that they can negotiate? Do they have to settle for that these days?
PATRICK T. BROWN: Well, no, I think, like I said, especially now compared to maybe five or ten years ago, workers have a lot more leverage when it comes to negotiating, again, things like work from home, which we’ve seen an explosion of in the post-pandemic era. There are certain jobs that are always going to be more demanding, you know, if you’re working at a law firm or something, that’s going to be very different than if you’re working as an accountant for a small business somewhere. But every job is always going to have trade-offs, and people make choices that are going to be best for their families, recognizing that the era of just sort of having to take whatever is offered and be grateful for it I think in some respects is diminishing and certainly as we think about the economy going forward, who knows what will happen, but as birth rates continue to shrink, and as worker shortages become more common, it’s going to give workers more ability to talk to their bosses frankly about, hey, look, this job means a lot to me, I want to be able to put food on the table for my family, but can we talk about some of these practices that aren’t conducive to family life.
And one thing, you know, we talk a lot about service sector workers and other workers and I think they deserve our attention but other things for some more knowledge-based workers, people who are working from home and that sort of thing is stuff like having a curfew on email after hours, so just saying any email that our firm sends we’re just going to hold it in the queue until the next morning because we don’t want people to feel the obligation to have to respond after 8 or 10 p.m. at night or whatever. It just gives — carves out a little more time for people to have that family time away from the demands of work.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. So we’ve talked about some things that employers can do and some things that employees can do. What are some public policy things that we can do either on a state or national level that might encourage employers to move toward better supporting their employees in this way?
PATRICK T. BROWN: Sure. Well, I think one area that policy is specifically beneficial to focus on is any time there’s big checks involved and I think of paid leave as being the primary example. We all think — I think there is broad agreement across the political spectrum that when new moms have a baby, we should be more accommodating of new moms and them having a healthy recovery and a healthy baby and all that kind of stuff. Of course, if you are asking a business to provide your salary for a couple of weeks while they’re sitting at home recuperating and recovering, that’s a tremendous imposition on businesses, especially small businesses or non-profits. So there needs to be a way that we step in at the state level or the federal level and say we want to make sure that moms aren’t being penalized financially for having a kid. And if there’s a modest paid leave program or even just providing a benefit to all new parents because some paid leave programs require you to be in the workforce and then if you decide that you want to stay home with your child for a longer amount of time, you might not be eligible.
So just saying, hey, look, let’s have the state jump in here and provide a modest amount, certainly not break the bank but make sure that new parents have a little more flexibility when it comes to those first precious weeks of having somebody waking you up at 2 a.m. every morning. Those kinds of things I think are appropriate for the state to get involved in, but when it comes to things like emails after hours or scheduling flexibility, those are things that workplaces can decide to do tomorrow. And I think recognizing that different sectors of our society have different responsibilities for putting families first is appropriate, but we should all be working towards that goal.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Healthcare or the lack of it does seem to be driving a lot of this.
PATRICK T. BROWN: As we head into this post-COVID world where there’s a lot more flexibility with maybe not being traditional employees but being contractors or gig workers or other things like that, recognizing that some of the labor models that we’ve had, we’ve had for a century now and sort of built on the new deal era might not be appropriate anymore. We need to be more creative about things like benefits provided through worker collectives or unions or something like that where we can be thinking about other ways of helping part-time or contingent workers access some benefits that maybe their firm isn’t able to provide them but we don’t necessarily think the government should be stepping in to provide everyone universally either.
So there’s a lot of discussions happening at the federal level and some at the state level as well about what new models could look like, but I think it starts with recognizing that the workplace of 2023 looks very different than the workplace of 1933 when a lot of these federal laws and labor practices were being put into place. And I think having that recognition and thinking about the ways that our workplace is going to continue to evolve and hopefully evolve in a more family-friendly directly, I think those are interesting conversations to be starting to have.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So let’s talk a little bit about the benefits of work and how it provides more than a paycheck for people.
PATRICK T. BROWN: The workplace has traditionally been — I mean if you think about where you spend your time most of the day if you have a job, most of your time is going to be spent at work. Now, again, in this new world, a lot of times that’s going to be home or, certainly, parents like myself sort of flex between work and taking care of kids. So not everybody is working a 40-hour-a-week job, but the importance of work, especially for a family, having that connection to have somebody being your provider, I think there’s a crass materialistic element that says, hey, look it’s good to have more money coming in than you’re spending. Yes, that’s definitely true, but there’s also this sort of role model aspect of having somebody showing what it means to be depended on and contributing to something bigger than themselves, participating in society and providing a service that somebody feels strongly enough to want to pay. Those kinds of values kids pick up on and contribute to a functioning society, and we’ve had this discussion before but the discussion around the child tax credit and some of the welfare programs that were introduced in the years under the Biden administration sort of disconnected some of that conversation when we’re talking about wanting to be a role model for kids and wanting the family to have a parent. It doesn’t matter which parent or how many hours they work, but just having some foot in the labor force to show that this is important and to recognize that having a society which undermines the value of work and says, oh, it doesn’t really matter if you’re working or not ends up sort of minimizing itself and leading to all sorts of social outcomes and pathologies that are bad for communities. They’re bad for families, and they’re bad for kids. We know kids do better when they have a parent working and providing for them and developing those habits.
So having that conversation of saying, look, work is something that we should be emphasizing, this is sort of a profoundly conservative value but I think some of our friends on the left recognize this as well, that we need to be thinking about the character that it forms in young people I think is totally appropriate but also recognizing that work isn’t the be all and end all of life, that there are more important things and that when you go to sign up for an employment contract you’re not signing your life away that employers need to be recognizing that you have responsibilities to your family as well.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, we’re just about out of time for this week. Before we go, Patrick Brown, where can our listeners go to read the article that we’ve been discussing, “Bolstering Social Capital through Better Workplace Policies,” and to follow your other excellent work?
PATRICK T. BROWN: The report that that was part of was published by the Social Capital Campaign, so if you just plug that into a search engine you’ll see that come up. Anything I write is always posted at our website, EPPC.org, which has my work as well as the work of other much more talented scholars working on all sorts of different sort of family-related topics. I’m on Twitter at PTBwrites.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. Patrick T. Brown, fellow at EPPC, which is Ethics and Public Policy Center. Thanks so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.