RALEIGH – In an analysis conducted by WalletHub, North Carolina ranked 36th among all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia when it comes to the state’s child care environment, professional opportunities for working mothers, and work-life balance for parents.
And while companies can play a role in supporting their employees who are also parents, there is a role for policy at the state or federal level, an economist told WRAL TechWire earlier today.
“My general thought is that while it is good for companies to help their workers, we make better progress if we can have state legislation that addresses the child care and work-life balance issues,” said Dr. Anne York, a professor of economics and program director at Meredith College in Raleigh, in an interview. According to York, this publication was “was eye opening to me how much difference there is between state policies regulating private sector leave policies.”
“It doesn’t seem fair to me that two North Carolinians have different caregiving leave benefits, depending on which company employs them, when the state can enact legislation that gives more workers equal benefits,” York said.
“One thing to keep in mind with these rankings is that very little separates one state from another state,” York said. So while North Carolina is 36th overall, there’s very little difference in how the state scores compared to others that earned a similar ranking.
“If we had more generous federal legislation to address child care, pay, and work-life balance issues, then these rankings between states become a moot point,” said York.
A full transcript of our conversation, conducted via email, appears below. It has been lightly edited, for clarity.
Current labor market environment
TW: What’s the latest employment data show with regard to workforce participation for women?
Dr. Anne York, Program Director and Professor, Economics at Meredith College (Dr. York): Nationally, women’s labor force participation is still below the pre-pandemic level. In February 2020, 57.9% of women were in the labor force. In March 2022, we are at 56.8%. According to this data, which I assume includes the latest data, the female labor force participation rate for women in North Carolina is currently 71.8%, which is below many other states.
How to improve
TW: Where, and how, could North Carolina improve?
Dr. York: While companies can have better policies for their employees, such as offering longer paid leave for caregiving or on-site childcare facilities, that only helps the women who work for that company.
To help all women in North Carolina, we need state legislation that addresses these issues. For example, the states at the top of this ranking all have passed legislation that goes beyond the minimum requirements of the federal law, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
The federal law allows for states to be more generous, but North Carolina’s policymakers have not yet chosen to be more generous. As a state, we can have the law apply to businesses with fewer than 50 workers or expand the types of caregiving arrangements that are covered.
Other states with better rankings also have enhanced their unemployment insurance systems to allow workers who quit working for caregiving reasons to apply for unemployment benefits when they start their job search to return to the labor market. There are a lot of policies at the state level that could be enacted to help working parents in particular, but will help all workers who have any caregiving duties.
Child care issues are another problem that is best solved at the state level. The pandemic decreased the availability of child care and it hasn’t yet recovered to the levels needed now. Can the state offer temporary support to this industry to help it scale up to the size needed? Child care centers can’t operate if they have too few staff or too few children enrolled. Wage support for child care workers and/or subsidies for parents will help this industry grow to the size needed post-pandemic.
Can companies help?
TW: Given the shift in the labor market, with an estimated 1 in 4 parents suffering from burnout, what are some key drivers to attract, retain, and support working parents?
Dr. York: North Carolina has done very well lately in attracting new businesses to our state. I hope that we will pass statewide legislation that will also help attract more workers to our state, who will see our state as having high quality, easy to find child care and policies that will improve work-life balance.
TW: What can companies do to help working parents?
Dr. York: When possible, companies should examine when their work actually needs to be done. Does everything have to be done during the workday? Does it matter more that an employee is sitting at her desk during the workday, or that the employee completes her tasks by their deadlines? I assume that companies are concerned about the latter more than the former, and if so, can companies build in scheduling flexibility for the worker to choose her own hours but complete any projects by their deadlines? Can companies invest in more software to better facilitate remote working? Companies can also be more transparent about pay scales and not request salary history on their applicants. Discriminatory pay against women can continue when companies base their pay on the salary earned at the previous job.