Speaker of the Household

The (presumptive) future Speaker of the House insists that he be allowed ample time to spend with his family. Will he afford others the chance to do the same?

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

On Tuesday night, Paul Ryan emerged from a meeting with the House Republicans to announce that he would agree to be the Speaker of the House — under four conditions. The first three were related to the office and the party. His fourth (and most heavily emphasized) condition was that he be allowed to delegate much of the speaker’s typical travel and campaign-related duties to others, because he refuses to give up on family time. He reiterated his concern for his family at the end of his statement:

“Let me close by saying: I consider whether to do this with reluctance. And I mean that in the most personal of ways. “Like many of you, Janna and I have children who are in the formative, foundational years of their lives. “I genuinely worry about the consequences that my agreeing to serve will have on them.”
(Read his full statement here)

Ryan’s emphasis on family has been lauded by many of his colleagues and various media sources. I (and presumably most humans with families) agree with him— family is the most important thing we have. Ryan’s making this point clear is commendable, in that it’s a trait not often emphasized in the cutthroat culture that is Washington politics. Forgive me, however, if I’m not swooning over his dedication to his children. It’s not all that exciting when we remember that so few people in the U.S. are able to maintain that same emphasis on family in their own work/life balance.

I’ll take just a moment here to note that I am not convinced this emphasis on family would have been received the same way if Ryan was a woman. I’m not sure that making a list of demands at all would have been accepted as willingly. But that is another story for another blog post.

What is certain, is that only 12% of Americans have access to paid family and medical leave, despite the fact that millions of Americans are responsible for young children and elderly family members. While the Obama Administration has pushed for the U.S. to #LeadOnLeave, Congress has been slow to respond.

In February of this year, House Democrats referred The Family Medical and Insurance Leave Act to the House Committee on Ways and Means, where it has lingered ever since. Paul Ryan is the chair of this committee. Ryan also voted against a bill in 2009 that mandated paid family leave for government employees.

Many of the concerns that have prevented the expansion of paid family and medical leave involve negative effects on businesses. The worry is that a mandate on business will be bad for productivity and and profitability. In theory, these are valid concerns. In actuality, however, the numbers tell an entirely different story. Currently, three states (California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey) in some way guarantee paid family and medical leave to employees. Economists released a study on the California program, which began in 2004, with surprising results:

In a random sample of 253 firms, stratified by size, employers reported that PFL had no noticeable effect or a positive effect on productivity (89%), on profitability (91%), on turnover (93%), or morale (99%). Despite fears that small employers would experience the most difficulty, we found that firms with less than 50 employees and those with 50 to 99 employees actually reported more positive outcomes than those with 100+ employees.
(Read the full report here)

To be fair, Paul Ryan hasn’t completely ignored the plight of the overworked family (wo)man. He is a co-sponsor of a bill called The Working Families Flexibility Act, which would allow workers to receive time off for overtime hours worked, instead of wages at a rate of time-and-a-half. A Ryan spokesperson has said, “This legislation would help people achieve a healthier work-life balance and maintain current employee workplace protections in law.” This sounds great — if you are in a position where you can trade your wages for time off. Most low-income workers and Americans living near or below the poverty line are not in that position.

The U.S. needs to prioritize federal action that will ensure that workers of all kinds, at all levels of income, are guaranteed the ability to take time off — to birth a child, bond with an infant, care for a sick toddler, take an elderly parent to the doctor — without losing vital income. Parents shouldn’t have to choose between being there for their kids and being able to pay the rent. And they certainly shouldn’t have to do that when our elected leaders don’t have to worry about these same issues.

So, Speaker Ryan, you’ll get your family time. What about the rest of us?

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