Pew Research Center conducted a series of focus groups to better understand the experiences of people who have taken leave – paid or unpaid – to care for a new child or other family member and those who have needed or wanted to take leave but were unable to do so for some reason. These focus group discussions with a diverse selection of Americans supplement findings from the nationally representative survey of U.S. adults who took or who needed or wanted to take leave and provide a glimpse inside the lives of American workers who have navigated the variable landscape of family leave.
Themes in focus group discussions of parental, family and medical leave
1. Family medical emergencies can put workers in crisis. Due in part to the unpredictability of these situations, caregivers may have a harder time structuring a successful leave than new parents do.
2. Receiving pay during a leave sometimes requires depleting accrued time off; without paid leave available, many workers often face difficult situations.
3. Many workers who take leave worry about the impact their absence will have on co-workers, and some also worry about the long-term consequences their leave may have on their career.
4. In addition to having access to paid leave, workers value flexibility in the way leave policies are administered.
5. Caregivers and new parents recognize the constraints employers face in granting paid leave, but they also see potential rewards for employers that provide robust leave policies.
6. There is little agreement about how paid family and medical leave benefits should be provided and what role government should play.
Focus group participants were asked to describe in detail their experiences with taking leave from work, reflecting on financial considerations, the ease or difficulty of arranging the leave, their satisfaction with their leave arrangements, emotional aspects of the leave, family dynamics, relationships with supervisors and co-workers, and the impact that taking leave may have had on their career. The conversations also explored participants’ views about what, if anything, could have been done to improve their own leave-taking experience, along with broader attitudes about family leave policies in the U.S. and the role of employers and the government in providing benefits.
Discussions revealed that, in taking time off to care for a family member, no two workers’ experiences are exactly alike. Some feel they were able to take a leave that was well-suited to their needs, while others found a way to manage despite the limitations of their employers’ leave policies or faced challenges in their work or personal lives in the face of trying to cope with their caregiving responsibilities.
About the focus groups
Each focus group consisted of eight to 10 adults coming together for an hour and a half to two hours for a discussion led by a professional moderator. All participants had taken leave from work (or needed or wanted to take leave but were not able to) following the birth or adoption of a child or to care for a family member with a serious health condition in the past five years.
All focus groups included respondents from a mix of racial/ethnic backgrounds that reflected each location’s demographic composition. The participants were also diverse in terms of household income, occupation and level of educational attainment.
Two focus groups were conducted in each location. These locations, in addition to representing geographic diversity, vary by the legal protections for workers that are mandated by the state.
Birmingham, Alabama, Aug. 3, 2016
Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 10, 2016
Sacramento, California, Aug. 16, 2016
Group 1: Caregivers for a family member with a serious health condition
Group 2: Parents with household income of $40,000-$125,000
Denver, Colorado, Aug. 18, 2016
Group 1: Parents with household income less than $50,000
Group 2: Parents with household income of $50,000 or more
Though these focus groups are not necessarily representative of those who took or who needed or wanted to take leave generally, they can provide a more complete picture of the experiences of workers in situations like these and help explain why some express the views they do. Short biographical descriptions are provided for context and generally reflect the participant’s experience at the time he or she needed or wanted to take leave. Several themes emerged in the focus group discussions:
Family medical emergencies can put workers in crisis; due in part to unpredictability, caregivers may have a harder time than new parents structuring a successful leave
According to the national survey, among leave takers who took less time off than they needed or wanted to, those who were caring for a family member with a serious health condition were far more likely than parental-leave takers to say the risk of losing their job if they took more time off was a reason they took less time off than they needed or wanted to (62% vs. 37%).
Many focus group participants talked freely about the painful experiences they had and the difficult decisions they had to make when caring for ill family members. Each story was unique, yet many shared certain elements — a sudden crisis for which they were unprepared, and a developing situation that was complex and many-faceted.
“Well, one day was normal and the next day I was taking possession – inheriting two adult disabled children.”
– Birmingham, Alabama, man who left his job to care for his parents and two disabled cousins
“Pregnancy you find out, kinda plan for it and you’re going to the doctor and they kind of knew around the time of birth or whatever but with surgery … even I didn’t plan. Like I said, [she] had it done on a Wednesday and I thought I would be back to work, worst case, Tuesday or Wednesday, and I ended up being off about 4 weeks.”
– Birmingham mother whose young daughter had unexpected complications during surgery
“It’s the strangest thing to me that you can be in ICU one day and they send you home the next with nothing in between from a traumatic brain injury. And nothing – no training for us. So, it was kind of a learn as you go kind of thing.”
– Columbus, Ohio, woman who worked as a teacher and cared for her mother
“I had two days’ notice to fly up there and figure out what to do … I wasn’t prepared for that.”
– Small-business owner in Sacramento, California, who cared for his mother
Many caregivers found a way to manage their work and caregiving responsibilities, but several focus group participants had to change jobs or leave the workforce entirely in order to cope with the needs of their ill family member. As a caregiver in Columbus who cared for her parents said, “I put a lot of things on hold for five years.”
“[T]heir medical leave, it depends on the circumstances. I got three days a month and she was in the hospital three days every week because her asthma was just that bad and so I was on the verge of losing my job because of missing too many days. … But I got it worked out and ended up quitting because I just felt like I had to choose my job or my daughter’s health.”
– Birmingham woman who quit her job to care for her daughter
“[The school] had some special needs classrooms, but they were not able to actually handle her. So, there were phone calls basically every day. … Slowly my work schedule just became part-time, which meant that I wasn’t eligible for a lot of things. … And I just thought, oh my gosh, it’s just better for me to quit, because they’re going to fire me.”
– Columbus mother who quit her job to care for her autistic daughter while dealing with her own medical issues
“The one thing that kind of sticks in my mind is that in the beginning it was kind of accommodating, but as things kind of progressed, people became more inquisitive as to what the trade-offs [were] with me being gone or being in the office, that kind of stuff.”
– Sacramento lobbyist who took care of his father
Receiving pay during leave sometimes requires depleting accrued time off; without paid leave available, many workers often face difficult situations
According to the national survey, about eight-in-ten leave takers (79%) who received pay used vacation days, sick leave or paid time off they had earned. Leave takers in the survey, especially mothers following the birth or adoption of a child, often needed to combine various benefits to continue receiving pay.
In the focus groups, a number of mothers spoke about the sometimes complicated piecing-together of benefits that must be done to secure income during a maternity leave. Some participants, particularly among the caregivers, were resentful of having to use their personal paid time off before being able to take advantage of paid family leave.
“[I] ended up taking two weeks of sick leave [during the waiting period for disability benefits]. I got paid for six weeks at 60 percent [through short-term disability insurance], which was almost all of my salary, minus all the taxes, and everything that comes out, and then I took another four weeks out of sick and vacation to stay home.”
– Columbus mother who is a social services case manager
“The first part I used my time and they matched, like if I used 4 hours, [they added] 4 hours … so I was getting paid. By that time, short term disability was coming in because I had done the 4 weeks and everything, so about [the] time I came back they came up with a daycare [at work].”
– Birmingham mother who works for a large health insurance company
“My principal is the one that I have to say, ‘hey, can I be off,’ and she has to approve it and she is very compassionate. But at the same time the way our leave is set up, it’s there and we can use it but you have to exhaust everything else before it kicks in and then it’s only 12 weeks after that. So if for some reason my husband took a turn for the worst, I have to choose … stay home and take care of him and my children or go to work because I can’t take care of him properly without the insurance.”
– Birmingham woman who works for the school system and is caring for both her mother and her husband
Among the focus group participants, some parents and caregivers who took leave without pay faced difficult trade-offs including having to rely on other people, taking out loans or selling their assets in order to meet their financial obligations.
“I basically had to calculate … how much time can I take off and still hit the numbers I need to and it was three days.”
– Birmingham father who works for an IT company
“I was just working a temporary assignment so I couldn’t get any kind of family leave or anything but it was really, really rough. Some days I would just have to let them know I couldn’t come in because I had to assist her and that would mean not a full paycheck and that was very stressful.
– Birmingham woman caring for her mother
“I took out a collateral loan. So, turned over the title to my car and that covered me for a little bit and then I did a loan with my dad and I had to pay him back when I got my [tax refund]. So, those were – that was my only option was taking out those loans.”
– Lower-income Denver, Coloardo, mother who worked in a call center when her child was born
“I went and applied for Medicaid and got food stamps and did all of that.”
– Lower-income Denver mother who quit her job in retail after giving birth because her employer did not provide any time off
“When she was born, she had complications so she was in the NICU for about two weeks. I ended up – wanted to ask them to take a long extended parental leave, but I didn’t want to leave the establishment unmanaged because I was the only manager. … I ended up taking about a week and just coming and going for hours going back and forth. It was kind of hard to not be able to take a real, full leave because we didn’t have vacation time.”
– Lower-income Denver father who worked in retail when his child was born
Many leave takers worry about the impact their absence will have on co-workers, and some also worry about the long-term consequences their leave may have on their career
According to the national survey, about four-in-ten (41%) leave takers who took less time off than they needed or wanted to cite feeling badly about co-workers taking on additional work as a reason they didn’t take more time, while roughly a third (34%) thought taking more time off might hurt their chances for job advancement.
Many participants, especially the family caregivers, said that their absence from work had caused difficulties for their employers and co-workers, and even for themselves, as some said they were expected to make up the work they missed during their leave. These workers said they felt guilty about the additional work they created for their colleagues or about the others they let down because of their time off from work, and some expressed concerns that taking a leave indeed harmed their promotion prospects.
“All they are worried about there are numbers, get those cars built, get them off the line, boom, boom, boom. [When] I am not there, I am putting stress on another guy because they don’t want to stop … you don’t stop that line, you don’t slow down that line, because that’s money. That’s numbers, and numbers are numbers.
– Autoworker in Birmingham who helped his parents take care of his grandmother
“[W]hen I had to go out on leave, I felt very guilty and obligated because here I am as the supervisor having to take time off and I have a staff of 20 for a very highly regulated position that not a lot of people have information on. So when I left, I felt terrible. So I think that added to my decision, too, to end my leave earlier.”
– Sacramento social service worker who took care of her disabled son
“I work directly with kids and I had 65 kids on my caseload at the time, and so any sessions that I miss with them, those kids, I had to make up, so it was like I knew I was piling up more work later on down the road and so it was stressful for me.”
– Sacramento speech therapist who helped care for her father
“I was supposed to be promoted to manager, and then I found out two days before I came back from leave that they’d given it to somebody else, and I said, I had told my boss when exactly I was coming back, she knew I was coming back at the end of this week, and – and she gave it to somebody else instead, even though this had been in the works for like a year and a half.”
– Columbus retail worker who took maternity leave
In addition to having access to paid leave, workers value flexibility in the way leave policies are administered
According to the national survey, when asked what benefits or work arrangements would be most helpful to them personally, people who have taken or have needed or wanted to take leave recently cite having paid leave for family or medical reasons as the most helpful (38%), followed by having the flexibility to choose their own work schedule as long as they work the required hours (24%) or to work from home (18%).
Among the focus group participants, caregivers and new parents who were given some flexibility in how they took their leave were very grateful. At the same time, not having such flexibility was one of the biggest complaints the focus group participants expressed. Not surprisingly, when asked how family and medical leave policies could be improved, caregivers and new parents alike said increasing flexibility is key.
“I would’ve appreciated being able to just work from home a little bit more and in some respects I kind of could and I – actually I did, but again that guilt comes in, it’s like you always ask – you feel like you’re asking for something special, something out of the ordinary and I just wish that it just felt more normal.”
– State worker in Sacramento who takes care of her elderly mother
“They also allow for flexible scheduling, so when I was pregnant, and even a few weeks before, I could work from home, and even after I went back full-time, I still worked from home a few days a week and they were really cool with that, so that kind of helps with that balance.”
– Denver mother who works for a nonprofit
“Well, I had to change my schedule to work the night shift. So I was working from 10 to 7 in the morning, and then my husband is a [postal] carrier so he has to work days. So that was how we balanced it. […] I would stay home during the day. I was tired, but then I didn’t have any bonding time with my child at night because I was working all night. And so it was hard.”
– Sacramento mother who works for a federal agency
Caregivers and new parents recognize the constraints employers face in granting paid leave, but they also see potential rewards for employers that provide robust leave polices
According to the national surveys, about three-quarters (74%) of all Americans say that employers that pay their employees when they take leave from work for family or medical reasons are more likely than employers that don’t provide paid leave to attract and keep good workers.
Focus group participants acknowledged the constraints employers face in granting paid leave and even unpaid leave. At the same time, they felt employers have much to gain if they help their workers cope with a new child or a family medical emergency.
“I think it’s a tough situation for employers to pick up the bill, although I think it would be great, and I think some companies and employers would, but … I know plenty of companies that are still struggling, and for them to take on that would be a pretty significant expense.”
– Columbus father who works in health care research
“[I]f I was a CEO … maybe you don’t want to pay your employees to have time off, but at the same [time], or like an opposite view, you need to keep your employees happy if you expect them to do a good job. You don’t want disgruntled people working for you so … yeah, I would make sure that my employees have enough resources … to take advantage of the programs that are available to them, so I would think that’s important to keep your employees happy.”
– Sacramento father who works for the state government
“[I]f parents have the security and stability and the time to heal physically, emotionally, they know they’re taken care of, they know they have a safe place to pump if they choose to breast-feed, they know they have all that, you are gonna have a much more productive employee, and you’ve also got an employee who has better health, their children have better health. Like, you’re gonna get more out of that person, I think, but it is hard in the front. I can see how it’s easy to not – you know, it’s a huge expense.”
– Denver mother who left her job and now runs a small business
There is little agreement about how paid family and medical leave benefits should be provided and what role the government should play
According to the national survey, while Americans are largely supportive of paid parental, family and medical leave, they are divided when it comes to government mandates on employer-paid leave: 51% say the federal government should require employers to pay their employees when they take leave from work for family or medical reasons, and a similar share (48%) say employers should be able to decide for themselves.
Several participants expressed frustration that the leave policies offered by their employers did not fully meet their needs. Yet, there was no consensus about what role, if any, the federal government should play in ensuring more generous family and medical leave benefits for workers.
“[W]e planned, we saved, our kids were not unexpected, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be home to bond with my child. Or that it’s not hard, or I’m not exhausted. Or time off wouldn’t have helped me be a better person, be a better employee, be a better father. I mean, you can plan all you want, and be financially sound all you want, but being at home with your child, I mean, that’s priceless. I mean, how do you get that back? You can’t get that back.”
– Denver father who works as a banker
“I believe that there’s just not enough focus on people’s lives. Like I said earlier, you work so hard at this job, but why? If they’re going to provide you with [so few] choices … That beginning time – the first few months, the first few weeks with your child – those make a significant impact on the bonding experience of the child. I think that’s so important and a lot of corporations, a lot of different businesses, they don’t care.”
– Denver mother who works as a nurse
“[I]f it needs to be a cultural shift, then I don’t think the onus can be just on companies, because companies are gonna find a way to get out of paying certain things. I mean, I just feel like if it’s gonna be something we value as a society, it needs to be valued just like we say we value certain things in this country.”
– Denver mother who works for a nonprofit
“I am very much supportive of it coming from some sort of government. If it can’t come from the government, then have them provide some sort of incentive to companies to make them want to write off something. Nobody should have to feel like they have to choose ‘I want to have a career or a family.’ I think a lot of people feel like you can’t have both.”
– Denver mother who works as a flight attendant
“[T]here needs to be something. I don’t know what that agency would be named, I don’t know what it all would do, but there are so many people that are at risk, there are so many lives that are at risk and there’s no real – people are making too difficult of a choice every day: ‘Do I go to work? Or do I take care of this person who I love dearly?’ ”
– Columbus woman who works for the state government
“I mean, I don’t think the government should pay for it, because, I mean, we’d all be paying for it anyway because it would be in our taxes, so it’s the same thing as saving. So if you’re gonna have a baby, you save, there’s really no difference.”
– Denver father who works as a sales manager
“Shifting the burden totally one direction or another, I don’t think, is correct. It has to be a partnership with both business, the government and the families, because we all have stakes in it.”
– Denver father who works for the state government