Should Family Leave Apply to Chosen Family?

Should Family Leave Apply to Chosen Family?

While federal law in the US does not require organizations to provide their employees with paid family or medical leave, American companies are facing more pressure than ever to do so, from state governments, the labor market, activist investors, and the court of public opinion. All of the 20 largest US employers now offer some kind of paid parental leave benefit to employees who welcome a child into their families, while companies that employ large numbers of hourly workers are offering these employees paid parental and sick leave for the first time.

Of course, family leave encompasses more than maternity or paternity leave: New state family leave laws also obligate employers to grant paid time off when an employee or a member of their family experiences a serious health condition, while sick leave mandates and policies often allow employees to use that leave to care for a sick child or family member. Letting parents take paid sick leave to care for a sick child is not uncommon, but in recent years, progressive employers like Deloitte, Facebook, and Microsoft—to name just a few—have begun adopting more expansive caregiving leave policies. These companies recognize that the aging of the US population is putting many mid-career professionals, especially women, in the position of helping take care of their elderly parents and other relatives. The business case for caregiving leave is persuasive, as such policies help retain valuable talent and avoid losses due to turnover or reduced productivity.

Now that family care leave has entered the American mainstream, however, a new question has arisen: Who counts as family for the purposes of these policies? Some states and localities’ sick leave mandates entitle workers to apply their leave to caring for loved ones to whom they are not related by blood or marriage, the Associated Press’s Jennifer Peltz reports. That’s the case in the states of Arizona and Rhode Island, as well as the big cities of Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and soon, Austin and St. Paul.

The concern among some skeptical employers and their advocates, however, is that the more-flexible family designation will encourage the abuse of sick time. But there’s a simple solution to that problem, Brookings Institution senior fellow Richard V. Reeves tells Peltz, which is to sidestep the question of defining “family” or “family equivalent” altogether and simply let workers use their sick leave to care for themselves or another person, whoever that may be. After all, this doesn’t increase the amount of leave to which employees are entitled.