Connecting the Dots Between Thriving Families and a Strong Economy

The 2016 Hawaii State Legislature is currently considering a bill to establish paid family leave in Hawaii. SB2961 has successfully made its way through the Committees on Human Services and Commerce, Consumer Protection, and Health, and has been referred to a joint Senate hearing before Judiciary and Ways and Means.

No new states have passed paid leave laws since Rhode Island became the third to do so in 2013. However, twenty-five municipalities across the country will implement policies in 2016 that provide wage replacement to city and county workers who stay home with their newborns.

Atlanta, Georgia, Dayton, Ohio, Hopkinton, New Hampshire, three jurisdictions in Minnesota, Multnomah County, Oregon, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, Seattle and King County, Washington, Kansas City, Missouri, and New York City and Boston, among others, will soon guarantee paid leave for these new mothers and fathers.

I find this particularly intriguing because we often forget that legislators, mayors, governors, and members of congress have influence over the fates of employees in a multitude of ways. Besides passing labor laws that can help all of us, they can support various benefits for municipal employees. Elected officials also have their own office budgets and are bosses themselves.

In fact, some pretty revealing surveys compare the paid leave voting records of US Senators and Members of Congress with the benefits that they offer their own staffs. While the perspectives of Senators and House members generally break down by party lines, most federal legislators seem to treat the people who work directly for them pretty well.

Not surprisingly, when I interviewed Hawaii lawmakers for my ibook, Lean On and Lead, Mothering and Work in the 21st Century Economy — in a state where ohana (family) is highly valued — legislators were very proud of the family-friendly workplaces they provided for their staffs, regardless of political affiliation or position. Additionally, many felt that elected officials have an opportunity and obligation to model positive work cultures for the state as a whole.

For example, when I talked to Republican Minority House Leader Rep. Beth Fukumoto, she spoke a great deal about breastfeeding accommodations, and stated that she believed that “a lot of the change … needs to come from building a culture where it’s ok to bring children to work, and where flexible work hours are offered.” She added: “I’ve had a couple of people working for me who’ve had newborns, and it’s important for employers to understand that there will be doctor visits, and sometimes new mothers who want to work have to bring their babies with them.”

(Rep. Fukumoto’s comments bring to mind new policies at Vodaphone that provide new mothers with the option to work thirty hours per week for full pay after taking sixteen weeks of maternity leave.)

In my interview with Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, he emphasized the importance of prioritizing family over work. When he first accepted his appointment, he negotiated the opening of a new Maui branch office so that he and his family would not have to move to Oahu. The LG told me that he encourages staff to take time off for family events and “not just doctor appointments. Everyone is always busy, but as a parent, you only get one chance to see performances, recitals, baseball games.”

In addition to describing how she brought her own baby to work — the state senate floor — like the other lawmakers I interviewed, Senator Jill Tokuda spoke of the supportive atmosphere she provides in her own office. She added, however, that these benefits need to be translated to the community-at-large:

“We want to make sure that’s an option for everyone, where they can be involved in their family’s life, and their children’s life, or whomever it is that they need to be involved in, and not just because it’s an emergency situation or an illness, but that they can be engaged.”

(Because Lean On and Lead includes interactive widgets, we get to hear the Ways and Means Chair describe her work situation and her perspectives in her own words in an audio clip that’s embedded in the iBook.)

It is encouraging that Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor, the Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and the Minority House Leader understand the importance of family time when it comes to supporting thriving families in our state.

But it’s also important to recognize the connection between the health of Hawaii’s families and our economy at large.

In most Hawaii families, more than one paycheck is required; both parents desire time with their children; either parent may have the educational capacity to participate in the workforce at a high level; and both men and women want to contribute to their communities. Beyond the needs of individual families, however, Hawaii’s economy needs educated and talented individuals to participate fully and to reach their potential in the workplace.

Furthermore, caring for the young and vulnerable, nurturing children’s early development, and providing supervision and guidance to youth are crucial to the long-term success of the 21st century knowledge economy. Preparing the healthy, creative, and robust human capital needed for our society’s future provides a clear-cut measurable return on investment.

Unfortunately, according to the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism, only five percent of Hawaii employers are required to comply with the Hawaii Medical Leave Act, which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family medical issues, including childbirth. And across the nation, only 13% of private sector employees have access to any paid family leave at all.

I believe that most of Hawaii’s elected officials understand the importance of taking care of ohana. They also clearly support a robust economy. It’s time to truly connect the dots between thriving families and a strong economy — and pass the laws that will provide our state with both — starting with paid family leave.

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