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The Still-Evolving Law on Work-Life Balance

While “work-life balance” is a cultural and social concept, legislation can—and has—supported it, to the benefit of individual workers, their families, and our larger society. 

For many historians, the concept of work-life balance as we know it today originated in the early 19th century. As industrialization literally and figuratively changed the landscape of Europe and the United States, the Welsh textile industrialist and labor organizer Robert Owen in 1817 came up with the ideal of a day divided into three equal parts: one part work, one part recreation, one part rest. 

But in an era when workers we now call “essential” often labored 16 hours a day and 100 hours a week, Owen’s ideal took a long time to become fully realized. For most working men and women, Sunday was the only day off they could count on.

Later organizers adopted Owen’s idea for more favorable labor laws. In the 1890s, United Mine Workers of America members in several Midwest states gained the right through negotiation to work an eight-hour day. Having already offered its workers the now-standard 9-to-5 working day, the Ford Motor Company in 1926 instituted a five-day work week, totaling 40 hours. Henry Ford himself even commented that the right to leisure time shouldn’t be confined only to the upper classes of society.

The landmark Family and Medical Leave Act

In the U.S., of course, the first modern legislation on work-life balance that comes to mind is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993. This landmark law established up to 12 weeks annually of unpaid leave for employees to care for their own or a loved one’s medical conditions. It’s not required that an employee take the entire 12 weeks at once, but rather it can be used as needed up to that amount.

The FMLA affords new parents much-needed time to care for a child after birth or adoption, and allows people time to recover from, for example, complications of pregnancy or a serious operation without worrying about the security of their jobs.

The forward-looking Pregnancy Discrimination Act

Even before the FMLA, there was the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. In 1978, legislators incorporated this provision into Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The act makes it illegal to refuse to hire a pregnant woman, or to fire a woman who becomes pregnant over the term of her employment. The same rights apply to women who choose abortion, or who experience any medical complications associated with pregnancy.

In addition, an employer is required to treat a pregnant employee as they would any other employee experiencing a temporary disability. The law puts much greater choice for the pregnant employee into the equation than had ever been possible before. A pregnant employee has the right to continue with the same set of duties as they had before if they want to. But they are also able to request a lighter set of work responsibilities, or to take unpaid leave. 

In general, the act also gives employees of any gender the right to take unpaid time away from work to attend to family responsibilities, including the school and extracurricular functions of their children.

State-level progressive legislation

Progressive states have instituted their own laws that mirror and support the FMLA’s and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s work-life balance provisions.

In California, for example, the state Parental Leave Law allows for 40 hours of time off to participate in children’s school functions. California’s Family-School Partnership Act, which originally took effect in 1995, permits not only parents, but grandparents and legal guardians, to take time off from work for school events. 

In Massachusetts, the Small Necessities Leave Act provides a total of 24 hours—in addition to federal FMLA leave time—to take care of matters involving elder care, children’s educational activities, and other issues that frequently come up in daily life.  

Emerging federal proposals

Legislators have introduced recent bills into the U.S. Congress that proponents hope will expand the right to work-life balance even farther.

A recent summary in the Harvard Law Review points to ways that federal legislation can help the U.S. achieve parity with European Union nations’ generous and popular work-life balance laws: Namely, in updating the FMLA and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, both originally created in large part to promote this goal. Among the most notable initiatives in this regard is Representative Mark Takano’s (D-California) recent reintroduction of a bill that would amend the FLSA and reduce the standard work week to 32 hours.

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