WASHINGTON – Thirty-eight weeks pregnant and on bed-rest with her fifth child, Glendale resident Angela Warren has to rely on her other four children to help run the household.
Her husband, Matt, can’t break away from his full-time job right now – and their budget can’t take the hit of losing both his salary and hers.
Even though the federal Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees most workers 12 weeks of leave for events like the birth of a baby, that leave is unpaid. And that can put Arizona working families like the Warrens in a bind.
“The FMLA even in itself is not super comprehensive or adequate,” Warren said. “It’s not necessarily realistic for people to be able to take 12 weeks unpaid. I don’t know a lot of people that can do that.”
While other states may grant more generous protections, Arizona is one of many that does not expand the benefits of FMLA – one reason it earned a grade of F on a recent report card on “family-friendly” workplace policies.
But Arizona was not alone.
In “Expecting Better,” a recent report from the National Partnership for Women and Families, 17 states got an F for their family leave policies, their protections against pregnancy discrimination and some nursing mothers’ rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
California got the highest grade, an A-, for its “first-in-the-nation paid family leave law.” Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey and the District of Columbia all got a B+ for their policies giving workers access to paid sick days, paid family leave and paid medical leave for pregnancy.
“But right now, Arizona doesn’t do any of those things, nor does it guarantee leave rights or the right to reasonable accommodations for pregnant women in the workplace,” said Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.
Businesses can offer such provisions, and should be allowed to make the decision to do so, said Garrick Taylor, spokesman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. The chamber would prefer letting businesses in the state deal with workplace policies internally rather than reacting to a government mandate.
“The chamber has supported policies that leave these sorts of workplace issues, such as family and medical leave, in the hands of the employer to work out with their employees,” said Taylor.
The FMLA applies to businesses that have at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius. To be eligible for leave under the act, a worker at such a business must have worked there at least one year and must have clocked at least 1,250 hours in the year before they start their leave.
The guidelines apply to 59 percent of the workforce nationally, excluding about 4 in 10 workers, according to the report.
Rick Murray, chief executive officer of the Arizona Small Business Association, said he thinks of FMLA guidelines as the floor for businesses with 50 employees or fewer to build upon.
“From our standpoint, it is really about letting the market dictate what those policies are going to be,” Murray said.
He said competition plays a role for small businesses in establishing workplace policies that are going to attract quality employees. There is much more attention given to employees in small businesses because of their close-knit work environments, he said.
“When companies have to compete for employees, typically what you’re going to find is that they are going to be offering more than what is the minimum in regards to benefits,” Murray said.
The companies that choose not to meet the “floor” for benefits, he said, are the “businesses that perhaps are not competing very well.”
“They just want to know what the minimum is, and they’ll provide that,” Murray said.
But even at the FMLA level of protection, Shabo said, families can be forced to choose between work and family when faced with the birth of a child or an unexpected family emergency.
“[Arizona's] private-sector workers and its public-sector workers are often forgoing pay, living paycheck to paycheck,” Shabo said.
“If they are not covered by the FMLA, they risk losing their jobs when they have a baby or need to take care of a family member,” she said.
Warren said her husband has seven days of paid leave he plans to use for the week after the baby is born, which “will wipe out his ability to take any days off if he does get sick sometime in the next year.”
Warren said she hopes state policymakers will make family-friendly workplace policies a priority – even if they won’t help her family right now.
“You think that you’re going to get to this point where it’s going to get easier, and the policies don’t allow for it to get easier,” she said. “There is a lot of work to be done.”