Published March 22, 2023
The conversation among many on the political right has recently focused on the need for a pro-worker, pro-parent agenda. But how many of these conversations have focused on improving the lives of working parents?
It is essential to ensure families with a stay-at-home parent aren’t left out of the policy conversation, and for conservatives to criticize policy proposals that wrongly assume most families want to have both parents working full-time (they don’t.) In the UK, the governing Conservative Party has proposed giving parents 30 hours of free child care a week as a way of boosting the country’s economy—with “conservatives” like that, who needs progressives? It goes without saying that advocating for the family as an institution rightfully insulated from overbearing market forces should continue to be a priority.
But focusing on the needs of parents who wish they could stay home need not be opposed to political steps that are credibly pro-worker and pro-working parent. Indeed, these two areas of focus should work in tandem. Making our society more pro-parent should mean expanding parents’ choices, both about how much to work, and whether to work at all, as well as creating more space for family life away from the demand of our economy. Whether it’s a single mom working in retail or two, college-educated parents living in a high-cost metro area, modest policy steps could make it easier for working parents to balance the demands of home and office without putting an undo thumb on the scale towards one type of family arrangement over another.
One-third of parents say they struggle with balancing the demands of home and workplace—disproportionately but not exclusively those with college degrees (who are, of course, more likely to be married.) In our recent IFS/EPPC report on family policy, 10% of moms said work-life balance was the biggest problem their family faced.
A political movement that is responsive to parents’ needs should think about ways to make family lives more stable and raising kids more affordable. As a matter of political reality, Republicans will always be more skeptical of heavy-handed mandates on firms and small businesses. But there are more modest steps we could encourage or incentivize businesses to take, which could make the workplace more parent-friendly.
One straightforward family-friendly policy for firms is better supporting pregnant workers and new parents. For example, Walmart announced last summer that its workers in certain states would be eligible for a $1,000 benefit towards doula services during pregnancy. Doulas are not medical professionals but provide assistance to women during pregnancy and childbirth, and have been linked to lower rates of C-sections, easier labor, and reduced medical interventions.
One-quarter of workers in private industry have access to paid family leave—this is a no-brainer for businesses seeking to be more parent-friendly. While small business or non-profits may not have the budget to provide paid leave directly, they could at least make mothers-to-be eligible for the same job protections as under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Currently, employers of 50 employees or more, schools, and public agencies are required to grant up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the FMLA to employees who have roughly averaged at least 25 hours per week over the prior year. Employers could waive that requirement for expectant mothers, giving them a little more peace of mind, especially when facing an unexpected pregnancy.
There are other ways businesses could be more accommodating to new parents as well. While the demands of different jobs will make flexibility look different in different circumstances, prioritizing accommodating new parents could mean greater willingness to experiment with flexible scheduling and working from home. As Adam Ozimek and Lyman Stone recently wrote, the post-Covid landscape of more flexible work arrangements seems to have led to higher fertility among moms working white-collar jobs.
About one-third of firms surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management said they allowed employees to bring their children to work with them in the case of an emergency—so long as the infants wouldn’t pose a safety risk; why shouldn’t that be standard practice for new parents? Allowing kids up to a year to accompany mom and dad to work, when desired, could lessen some of the logistical load on parents while adding a few more smiles to the workplace.
Then, there are common practices that affect all workers but have a particularly negative impact on parents working in the service sector. Just-in-time scheduling, in which one’s hours and schedule vary based on projected demand, is common in service-sector jobs, like retail, food, and hospitality: a 2019 survey found less than half of workers in those industries got their schedule more than a week ahead of time. According to the Brookings Institutions’ Katherine Guyot and Richard Reeves, one-third of female workers, many of whom are moms, know their work schedule less than two weeks in advance.
This is, of course, especially hard on parents with young children, who must figure out care arrangements at the last minute. Unsurprisingly, one study found “on-call shifts, shift timing changes, work hour volatility, and short advance notice of work schedules are positively associated with difficulty arranging childcare and work-life conflict.” Some lawmakers have introduced federal legislation to curb the practice, and in 2020, Oregon became the first state to require schedules 14 days in advance.
On the other end of the spectrum, the remote work boom has allowed many parents to work from home with more flexible schedules. One drawback is that the demands of the workplace can sometimes chase parents, infringing on their family time. I’m partial to the approach of German companies like Volkswagen and Daimler, which have negotiated hours where non-essential e-mails are not delivered. Family-friendly companies could institute a rule on their company’s server that all in-office e-mails not designated as an emergency would be delivered to the recipient the following morning.
Of course, for parents that do take time out of the labor force to bear and raise children, returning to the office can be an adjustment. The Harvard economist Claudia Golden has written widely about making jobs less “greedy,” meaning parents would pay less of a professional penalty for taking time out. Companies would ideally see parents returning to the labor force after raising children as a potential asset and offer specific programming and recruitment efforts tied to this population. Large companies, such as IBM, Goldman Sachs, and Wells Fargo, have been offering so-called “returnships,” which tend to attract women who took time off from their career to have kids and are looking to return to professional life.
While most of these steps could be taken by corporations, policymakers could do more to nudge more employers in the right direction. The Department of Labor could collect data on firms’ metrics around certain family-friendly policies—the share of employees with access to paid leave or child care benefits, the share of employees scheduled with fewer than two weeks’ notice—to give researchers more data into what policies work best, and to give employees more knowledge about the state of the labor market. As the Social Capital Campaign’s Chris Bullivant has written, conservatives could consider this a kind of family-friendly ESG.
A pro-worker, pro-parent agenda must attend to the needs of working parents. Seeking additional flexibility without losing financial stability is an appropriate goal for policymakers. Tight labor markets and the post-Covid rise of work-from-home have already expanded options for many parents, but many still struggle to balance the demands of home and office. Companies can and should take the lead, with meaningful policy nudges as necessary, as part of a commitment to making family life easier for all parents.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.