Catholic groups seek harmony on paid leave

The debate about paid parental leave in the United States is gaining momentum after a wave of announcements about companies, cities and states expanding their leave benefits.

Under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), some full-time employees are eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to spend time with a new child, recover from illness or care for a sick family member. Studies show that children’s health is better when parents can be with them in the first weeks and months of life.

Most countries mandate paid parental leave in the case of the birth of a child, which allows working families to take time off (benefitting mother and child) without risking their economic stability. In the United States, however, only 12 percent of private sector employees have access to paid family leave, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

During his visit to Philadelphia last September, Pope Francis said, “[W]e cannot call any society healthy when it does not leave real room for family life. We cannot think that a society has a future when it fails to pass laws capable of protecting families and ensuring their basic needs, especially those of families just starting out.”

The next month, he asked Italian businesses to promote harmony between work and life, emphasizing the “right to work and the right to motherhood.”

Church’s role

In many circles, the issue of paid parental leave is considered a challenge for the Church. Like its secular counterparts, Christian organizations, most of which are pro-life and pro-justice in nature — offer a range of policies on parental leave. Often, parishes, schools, nonprofit organizations and diocesan offices find it difficult to offer adequate paid leave because of small budgets or staff shortages.

Some challenges organizations face when a parent goes on leave include finding qualified temporary personnel or paying overtime to those covering for lost labor. Another challenge is paying salaries and benefits to parents on leave. This could be difficult and expensive for companies that run on tight budgets, with little room for additional expenses, said Miguel Olivas-Luján, professor at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

Though some dioceses offer financial support through short-term disability, other dioceses rely on the employee’s accrued vacation and sick time or alternate ways to support families financially. Most, as a Washington Post article reported last November, would gladly offer paid leave if they could afford it.

Some dioceses do offer some paid maternity/paternity leave. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati offers three weeks of paid leave for its chancery and parish employees.

“This recognizes what the Church teaches: that family is important,” said Robert Reid, archdiocesan director of human resources.

Susan Moss, human resources generalist at the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said its policy includes 20 days of paid leave starting on the day of the birth or adoption of a child. This allows employees to have a work-month of bonding with a child.

“The policy is very supportive of the Church’s respect life position,” she said.

Some Catholic organizations in states with mandated paid leave ­— California, Rhode Island and New Jersey — go beyond state requirements to help part-time and full-time employees.

John Bittner, human resources director for the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, said the diocese waived the FMLA requirements to have 50 employees in a 75-mile radius in order to provide employees with 12 weeks of job-protected leave. Employees may also qualify for temporary disability or temporary caregiver insurance, which pays a percentage of their salary during eight weeks, up to $736 per week. The New Jersey Family Leave Act offers 12 weeks of paid leave in a given 24-month period. The Family Leave Insurance provides six weeks to bond with a child. Mothers who are not able to work due to pregnancy also qualify for disability insurance, which grants extra paid leave.

Supporting families

John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, said faith, morals and economic wisdom play a role in paid parental leave.

“I think the most important word in Catholic social teaching is ‘and,’” he said. “Finding a way to harmonize the need of family life and also economic life is not just a public challenge but a moral challenge.”

Father Sean Michaelson, executive secretary of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, said each organization has the challenge and responsibility to understand the laws of their area and then ask, “How can you be most generous when this is the reality we live in?”

The Jesuit conference recently developed a family leave policy that offers eight weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave for conference employees. (Jesuit provinces handle their human resources’ matters individually.) Father Michaelson and Suzanne Krudys, special assistant to the president of the conference, were instrumental in developing this policy.

“As a mother of three, I wanted to make sure that this policy gave opportunities to families and that it mirrored our commitment to life,” Krudys said. “We wanted to be as generous as the office could handle.”

“The Church calls all of us to support life, support families,” Father Michaelson said. “Because we had the good fortune to be able to offer it, we had the responsibility to do the best for our employees ... For every organization it is a matter of trying to arrive at what they think is the best option.”

Challenges, solutions

Smaller pro-life organizations might face challenges when setting up leave policies. In the case of the Guiding Star Project, which recently incorporated as a nonprofit and just opened its first center for women and families in Minnesota and became affiliated with a pregnancy center in Florida, there needs to be a lot of planning on how to guide their pro-life centers about best medical leave practices.

“There is no final decision about how we can make this feasible,” said April Jaure, a Guiding Star board member. “We agree that we should be promoting motherhood and parenthood for our (future) employees ... FMLA is the bare minimum.”

Catholic organizations could offer alternatives for parents that are within the resource restrictions, Olivas-Luján said. These include expanding disability insurance or extending benefits like more paid time off (vacation, personal or more sick days allotted), and allowing flexible work hours during a mother’s recovery.

“Permission to work remotely or part-time during those weeks will make a large difference,” he said.

Another option is to allow the donation of paid time off time to another employee who needs additional leave.

Carr said providing time off in the case of the birth of a child or the illness of a spouse is crucial. He said that while the Church works to advocate for an economy that provides paid leave, organizations can try to meet the needs of employees at crucial times in their family lives.

“Getting strong legislation is important and so is making accommodations for (parents) to meet their responsibilities,” Carr said. “This is a case in which work and family come together, and it is critical to enable workers to be good family members and for family members to be good workers.”

Maria-Pia Negro Chin writes from New York.