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When both spouses work or when there is a single parent, a serious medical condition or long-term illness can wreak havoc. Even for an unmarried adult child or a family with an at-home spouse, a sick relative can be a huge challenge. Yet, as our communities grow less communal, and offspring move hundreds of miles away from where they grew up, the family becomes both more isolated and more essential as a safety net for all the extraordinary problems that can develop.
Recognition of the burden families are under led to the creation of the Family Medical Leave Act almost 15 years ago, which provides up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to employees.
It is not a perfect law. It gives many lower-wage employees an unaffordable option: You can take a leave from your job, but without pay, to deal with family medical issues. And it puts a burden on smaller employers: Deal with the loss of a key employee, perhaps, for an extended period of time because of family medical reasons.
The unfortunate reality is that it is not just the family that is under stress, but the workplace.
Most of the discussion of family-leave issues, including the discussion in our own pages, focuses on the larger corporate world or organizations complex enough to deal with the loss of employees for three months at a time.
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In the real world of small businesses and organizations, this is less of a luxury, particularly for skilled positions that are not easily filled. And these businesses are often under the greatest stress from large competitors both here and abroad.
Yet the abuses the legislation attempted to address are real, and they persist. It is critical that society as a whole look to values beyond simply productivity and profit.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: "Those responsible for business enterprises are responsible to society for the economic and ecological effects of their operations. They have an obligation to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits" (No. 2432).
While profits are necessary for the survival of the enterprise, the Catechism adds, it stresses the need for social responsibility on the part of business leaders.
In our hypercompetitive economic environment, the scale and cost of this social responsibility is robustly debated, but the fundamental challenge of the church's teaching remains: Like the Sabbath, work was made for man, not vice versa. The shattering of the family or the abandonment of the weak and ill is too high a price for a moral society to pay, if that is the cost of economic dominance.
Of course, that is not the only choice. What often goes untracked by any accounting software or government statistics are the many occasions when employers go above and beyond the legal minimum for their employees in need. Flexible work hours, leave with pay even when it is not required, personal time to address family matters: All of these are often unheralded, undocumented ways that a good employer recognizes that an employee is about much more than simply a job.
These employers know that responding to family needs makes for happier employees and a better work environment. In the coming labor shortage that will hit our nation as baby boomers retire, such ethical behavior will make sound business sense as well.
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