Contributor: Ali Ahmed
Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
Ellen Bravo, directs the Family Values @ Work Consortium, a network of broad coalitions working for policies such as paid sick days and family leave insurance. The network has achieved unprecedented victories, such as paid sick days in Connecticut and California; San Francisco; Washington, DC; Seattle; Portland; New York City; nine cities in New Jersey; family leave insurance in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island; and paid parental leave passed in Washington state, with more wins on the horizon. Ellen is the author of Taking on the Big Boys, or Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business and the Nation and a passionate, relentless, fun and funny advocate for families and children.
Stew Friedman: Since we spoke last year there’s been considerable progress at the state and federal level. Can you give us an update what’s new in the world of advancing policies and initiatives in our nation that are helping working families?
Ellen Bravo: As of today, more than 10 million people in the United States newly have access to paid sick days because of the work of our coalitions and their partners. It’s amazing how many people have paid sick days for themselves, but they can’t use it for a sick child or parent. Or they can take sick days, but they get demerits when they use it. Or they have them, but they don’t get paid for day one, and so many people just don’t take that time at all. There are three states now that have family and medical leave insurance programs. And guess what? By the end of 2016, there may be three more. D.C. is the best place to have a baby, be sick, have parents. What a great way to summarize what it means to have access for paid leave.
SF: What are those three states?
EB: D.C., Connecticut, and New York all could win family medical insurance over the next year. There’s a number more where campaigns are growing: Massachusetts, Oregon, and a bunch of other places. Here’s what’s really exciting to us: our network formed because we knew that it was these boots on the ground that helped build the critical masses needed to get the national standard that we all need. We’re very proud of that. We’ve really helped create a network that looks at these local coalitions, deeply rooted in their own city or county or state, and helps them share their lessons, share their successes, and see themselves as part of a national movement by linking them all together.
SF: This also creates momentum, right? Because people see that it’s possible. That motivates others to get involved.
EB: I can’t tell you how important that is. We just wrote a booklet called “Why I Became an Activist.” It is profiles of twelve people telling how they became engaged in one of these campaigns, and what it has meant to their lives. Another important part of life is people realizing that change is possible if we do it together; what I couldn’t do on my own, we can do together. And it breaks through that disenfranchisement that so many people feel. That sense of, “Who listens to me? Who cares about me if I don’t have money?” And it’s really showing people that there are solutions. That what happened to them wasn’t just one bad boss or one bad company. It’s something about the whole system. We can fix that by having these basic and common sense policies. It’s so exciting to see that. Everyday I meet those people who’ve change their own lives and those of so many others.
SF: Is that part of your daily life, is meeting with people who are just getting involved in this, let’s call it a social movement?
EB: It’s one of my favorite things to do. I was invited to speak at the 20th anniversary of one of our anchor groups in Massachusetts called “Coalition for Social Justices, Fall River, Massachusetts”. It’s a $30 plate dinner. People there are ages 18 to 85 and very multi-racial. And someone gets up from New Bedford and says, “We talked 4,692 people. 4,062 of them became members of our coalition, and we went out in teams on election day. This is for the ballot initiative for sick time and we said go ‘vote yourself some sick time.’” It’s this very grass roots effort. They took a report one time when they went canvasing and there were people waiting on the porch saying, “I heard you were coming today. I had to tell you. This is my life. I’ve never had a paid sick day. This is what it means to me.” And just what you were saying talking about disharmony. What could be worse than you’re kid is sick and you have to decide do I lose my pay for the day to be with this child? Who do I let down? My family or my employer and my family again, because we need to provide for them as well as to care for them.
SF: And it’s a choice that America should not have to make, according to our president and so many other legislators. But it’s hard to get it through at the national level. Before we get to that very big question about how we create a national policy that works. Speak to the business interest at play here because many of our listeners are business people, first and foremost. Many of them have families and have people working with and around them who are committed to their families and want to be able to be engaged and supportive of the needs of the people in their families. Why is this an issue that businesses should really get behind?
EB: So, for both businesses and family medical leave insurance, the great thing is that every one of our coalitions has business partners. And those business leaders join in. First of all, many of them already provide these policies because they think it’s the smart, as well as the right, thing to do.
SF: Smart from a business point of view?
EB: Yes. It doesn’t take much thinking to say not one of us is as good on day one as we are on day 366. Everybody needs to get up to speed on their jobs. And so business owners invest in those workers. Whatever the kind of job, it’s a loss when they leave. So, we don’t want to put people in a situation where we say “get out” if you’re going to do exactly what the doctor tells you to do or what a good parent should do or good child should do for their parent. And businesses don’t want to be in that situation. They want people to have harmony in their lives, but sometimes they can’t afford to do it themselves. That’s what the family medical leave insurance does. It creates a pool of small contributions that help make leave affordable. That’s a real boon to businesses. Paid sick days is a much smaller investment and what the business owners who are partners of ours tell us is, “Look, I already do this, but I want everyone to do it. Because you know what? Other people’s staff, they are my customers. And if they lose money because they are being a good parent or doing what the doctor said, they don’t come to my shop or store or whatever, that hurts me.”
SF: All those ripple effects that emanate from good policies that really support people so that they can stay in their jobs and be the kind of family member that they want and need to be. That benefits the whole ecology of our local economy.
EB: That’s exactly right. The great words are whole ecology. I commend you and the tremendous work you did to get a couple hundred of business professors who say, “yeah, this is smart business. Let’s do this. It’s time for our nation to do this.” You’ve done a tremendous service. I’ll tell you what one of my favorite things about the work we do is: there are people out there when we first started our network over a decade ago, the opposition tried to characterize it as workers versus business and they can’t do that anymore because we have so many business owners who said, “listen, those lobby groups don’t speak for me. I am the business community too. And I want this because it’s the best thing for our community and our nation. It’s good for me personally, but it’s also good for my community and that matters to me what kind of economy we have overall and what kind of nation we are overall.” And so, those divisions that people tried to legislate, we said you can’t do that anymore. We won’t let you. It’s identity theft. You can’t claim to be the business community when you speak against these modest little reforms like paid sick days or family medical leave insurance. You’re really speaking for giant corporate interests.
SF: And that’s an important issue. Where is the resistance coming from and why? First, for our listeners, Ellen was referring to the fact that I helped author and was the lead signatory on a letter that came from 200 business schools’ faculty that we sent to every member of Congress in support of the Family Act, now before Congress. I have to tell you Ellen, it was so easy to do that, partly because of our partnership with Vicky Shabo with the National Partnership for Women and Families. Also, once we sent it out to a couple of my business school colleagues, they sent it out to their colleagues and it spread rapidly because it’s a no-brainer for us to see how the current and future generations of business leaders want this and how we need it for our business and our society. So, back to where we were: where does the resistance come from?
EB: Unfortunately, there are organized lobbies. Their job is to stand in the way of change. I think of them like the sheriffs in the doorway of schools when kids are trying to de-segregate. It’s a knee jerk reaction. These lobbies are literally telling Congress, “Don’t tell us what to do. We don’t need any regulations.” It’s the same thing got us in trouble with the housing bubble, the Exxon Mobil spill, and so on. Of course we need some common sense regulation and protection for people. That’s what this is. The thing that amuses me is that you see that same arguments that were made before. I made this little quiz that says, “Who said this? Is it your local chamber of Congress? The National Federation of Independent Businesses? The American Legislative Exchange Commission, or none of the above?” This is the quote: This law will destroy industry in the city and the state. It turns out it was from the head of the Real Estate Board in 1912 after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 148 women and kids. And for the first time ever, the city of New York said we might need some regulation. And you know what the regulations were? Let’s have a fire escape, let’s have inspections, and let’s prevent employers from locking their workers in while they do their jobs. That’s all it was. Certain people said that will destroy industries. The same thing was said when we ended child labor and when we established minimum wage. It’s unfortunate because it makes business owners look small-minded and narrow-minded. It’s a disservice because so many of the leaders in our coalition are business owners who have always been doing this and who see that it is a best business practice for them to be speaking out in support of a public policy to establish a voice for everyone.
SF: Especially when the research on the impact of those public policies has shown that they support business goals such as the retention of great people. People are more likely to stay if they have this kind of support.
EB: It’s really mindset. They view workers as inherently lazy and they need to be punished, or they view them as assets, the greatest assets actually. And if you invest in them, and take into account that they are whole people that need to integrate all the parts of their life, just as you said Stew, then your business will do better. Also, you’ll be contributing to a much better society.
SF: It’s not just an economic imperative; it’s a moral imperative. And there’s an accumulating body of research that demonstrates this. So, at the national level, when are we going to see real change? What do you think it’s going to take? The democrats are debating tonight for the first time. [Tuesday October 13, 2015.]
EB: I think it’s going to take just what we’re doing, continuing this growing number of wins. You see if you go to our website, the timeline of wins. You’ll see this growth in the number of wins each year. And there’ll be a bunch more in 2015, and then another bunch in 2016. And we need to do the same thing with family medical leave insurance. Get a critical mass of states over the next five years. That’s our goal. And I think that when we do that, we’re going to see changes in who governs and what they stand for. We’re already seeing that voters across the political spectrum and across every demographic really care about these things. They’re paying much more attention to where candidates stand on it. The more people see that this is good politics as well as good policies, that’s what it will take. But what you said is also true. If everyone adds to the growing body of evidence. Productivity goes up, morale goes up, retention goes up, and that’s just what we want. These are in sync, and it’s a disservice to say we have to decide – do we treat people well or do we do well in our businesses. Of course we do better when we all do better.
SF: What can listeners do to learn more, and much more importantly spread their understanding of the stories of success that really do cut into these outmoded ways of thinking, which pit workers and their families against the interest of businesses, when in fact they are in sync, can be, should be, and must be. What can listeners do?
EB: The easiest thing is just go to our website — familyvaluesatwork.org — and say I want to get involved and tell us a little about yourself. If you’re in a state where we are, we’ll connect you to that coalition. There are local people who know the conditions and they know the kind of policies that will work best. And they want your help. And you can really help make the difference. If you’re in a state where there isn’t yet a campaign going on, you can help us speak out for these national policies. And you may also be able to help create something in that state. The exciting thing is that there are people everywhere that want to do this. Everywhere I go people say what can we do to get this started. And your listeners can absolutely be a vital part of making that happen. But also, you can support our work.
SF: Otherwise to provide support for this growing movement of people throughout our great country, to help us really start to get close to on par with the rest of the developed world, because we are so woefully and tragically behind in terms virtually all of our competitors in the world economy, what are the options?
EB: Have I told you my favorite country? It’s Iceland. They have policy “3-3-3” that next year is going to be “5-5-2”. And what that means is each parent can take 3 months of paid leave and the couple can share the other 3 months. And next year it will be five, five, and two months they can share. And guess what’s happened? Most men take that leave, and after a year and a half 70% of the men that take that leave are sharing childrearing. This is a great thing for families, great thing for our workforce. I love it that Susan Wojcicki, who is the CEO at YouTube, wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal about how when Google, which is a parent company of YouTube, increased the amount of leave, their turnover rate among women was cut in half. She said “I’m a better person.” She has five kids. She’s taken five maternity leaves. She’s also unapologetic about it. But she said, “I’m a better leader by having taken that time. I am more in sync with our customers and what they need.” And that’s a good thing. It’s not a favor to women; it’s a better way to do it. That’s what’s really great.
SF: It’s not just about women, as we know. In our 20 year longitudinal study of Wharton grads, we found that young men especially are as eager, more so than women, to have policies, both corporate and social, that support them as fathers, as sons, as brothers to be able to provide support for the family and the people that depend on them.
EB: Absolutely. And in our pamphlet, a number of those activists became active as new dads wanting paid family leave for everybody. One of the things they say is, “We’re tired of dads being treated like a spare part. These are our kids. We want to be just as involved in their lives. And we don’t want to be punished for being responsible fathers.” The great thing about these policies is that they are strengthening families and helping so many men to be exactly what they want: be good fathers, sons, and husbands, and brothers, as you point out. We’re delighted to see that.
SF: Not only is it better for them as fathers, but it helps their children and it enables women to lean in at work if dads are leaning in at home. So, it truly is a win all the way around. We just got another couple of minutes here, Ellen. What’s the most important thing for our listeners to know about the work that you’re doing and how they can be a part of it at a personal level?
EB: The most important thing for them to know is that peoples’ lives are being transformed. If you read the language in the booklet, they talk about it “being an honor to do this.” And, “I suddenly felt I found my voice. I realized the power that we have to make change happen.” There are so many people who want to do exactly that, but they don’t know what they can do alone as individual. By becoming part of these coalitions we amalgamate our power, and that’s what’s enabling us to make change. Elected officials say, “Look at these business owners speaking up. When the lobbyist comes and tells me business says X, I’m going to say no they don’t. I just sat and talked to them in my office, or I got a call, or I got a letter.” So, sharing your stories, why you do this, and why you support it. Sharing how these policies help you to invest in and retain the people that work for you, and how it made your company a success. That’s the best thing we can do. We so appreciate the work that you’re doing already and I hope that you’ll add to the strength that we’re building up in the field. And that will get us the national policies that we need.
SF: It’s going to take time. It’s going to take effort from a lot of people, but it really doesn’t take all that much. And it doesn’t cost business. The policies that I’m aware of, they are neutral in terms of the revenue implications for most business owners.
EB: I remember the guy who was the CEO at Stride Rite, and who had an intergenerational care center, so there were little kids and there were seniors. And they did activities together. They made bread. They told stories. But there were also activities they did separately. Somebody said, “Are you an idiot? Why are you wasting money on that?” He said, “Have you seen the faces of our employees when they get off the elevator and they see a parade of the little kids and the seniors going through the hall. Even if it isn’t their kids or their seniors? You think that doesn’t last, that smile, when they go back to work?” He says, “Who’s the idiot?” And I’ve always remembered him saying that. I think that’s so true. I mean, Stew, I meet people all the time who tell me stories of having to kiss their dying son or husband or mother every day at the hospital and then go to work knowing that this was the day, and she might die forever. And they can’t help it because it’s the only way they can pay the bills. Or think about the nearly one in four mothers who go back to work within two weeks of giving birth. What kind of country are we?
About The Author
Ali Ahmed is an undergraduate senior majoring in Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in Cinema Studies.