The Unseen Costs of Family Leave

Government Mandates Create Disincentives to Hiring Women

Paulist Father Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Young women interviewing for jobs in the past year may have noticed potential employers looking carefully at their ring fingers. No, it’s not an example of sexual harassment. Rather, employers are growing more skeptical of hiring (and promoting) young married women of child-bearing age.

Employers have long taken sex into account when hiring workers. The turnover rate for women is higher than for men, since a woman is more likely to leave her job to have a baby, or move when her spouse is transferred. Thus, companies were already less likely to hire and promote women.

But the Family and Medical Leave Act, which went into effect in July 1993, has increased the costs of hiring women. The law requires companies with more than 50 employees to grant full-time workers employed for one year 12 weeks of unpaid leave in any 12-month period. Employees can take this leave for birth or adoption of a child, or serious personal or family illness. And companies are legally bound to give workers their jobs back or an equivalent position when they return. Employers know that women of child-bearing age are most likely to take advantage of this government-mandated benefit. Thus, the “benefit” is another reason for firms to choose another candidate for a job.

Consider what Tama Starr, president of the ArtKraft Strauss company, told The New York Times: “If you are an employer, you will look at a young woman and say, ‘Can we really entrust her to do crucial responsibilities that no one else can do because she’s going to take three months off?’” Starr’s answer to the economically logical, if politically incorrect, question: “You protect women so they can nurture babies and that’s very nice, but you keep them at the lower end of the pay scale.” Put bluntly, it is a lot easier to find temporary help to replace a clerical worker than a professional.

Some women have already felt the negative effects of the legislation. A spokesman for “Nine to Five,” the National Association of Working Women, complained that their Long Island branch recently received 22 phone calls from pregnant women who believed they had been fired by employers seeking to get them out of the way before the law took effect. Sex discrimination is illegal, of course, but it is not always irrational. Employers are usually going to follow market dictates, since that’s why they are in business. To root out rational sex discrimination would require the government to police virtually every employment decision in the country.

Obviously, for fear of lawsuits if nothing else, companies cannot simply stop hiring women. But businesses can try to hire women who seem least likely to take advantage of the new law. These days, an acknowledged lesbian would be a better bet than a blushing new bride. Similarly, a single woman over 35 is a more attractive candidate for a job or promotion since statistically she is less likely to marry and have children than her younger counterparts.

Thus, pro-family groups should have led the fight against family-leave legislation. Unfortunately, however, many believed the liberals’ claim that family leave really was good for the family. Isn’t it “pro-family” for employers to give women 12 weeks off to have kids? Not when the government mandates it, creating a powerful incentive for women with professional aspirations to remain not only childless but also single.

Government intervention in the name of the family didn’t begin with this legislation and, unfortunately, won’t end with it. The next step, demanded by many family-leave advocates, will be to require companies to give employees paid leave, something that would dramatically increase the disincentive to hiring women. And if the inconvenience of children is keeping women from being company workers, politicians are likely to push for increased subsidies for and regulation of day care, if not federally run centers.

Moreover, the Family and Medical Leave Act must be considered in the context of other laws that restrict the labor market. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, for example,wants to raise the minimum wage and index it to the rate of inflation. If an employer can’t afford to pay up, he will have to let workers go. And if Congress passes the administration’s health-care plan, businesses will have additional heavy expenses to bear.

Poor economic conditions, largely resulting from misguided federal fiscal and monetary policies, in conjunction with ever-higher rates of taxation, have forced many mothers to work even when they would prefer to remain home with their children. The government’s first priority, then, should be to help relieve the financial pressure on women to work. At the same time, it should drop measures that artificially inflate the costs of hiring mothers. Officials should allow women to negotiate their own contracts, making the choice of salary levels and benefits that best meet their own needs and that of their families.

Many politicians have paid lip service to reversing the breakdown of the family. Federally mandated family leave was one of their answers. But the family is a natural product of a free society and needs no special privileges from government to thrive. American families would be better off if government undid the damage it has previously caused, instead of “helping” by passing ever more counterproductive measures like family leave.

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