When Work Benefits Decline, Families Suffer

Finding a healthy balance between the job and the family has become a mantra for working Americans.

"A balance between work and home life is a big priority for me," one working mother told ABC News today.

And it's not just women. A working father we met said, "I'm willing to work less hours and make less money because, again, my children are my priority."

But while the desire to improve the work/life balance has grown, the surprising results of a National Study of Employers released today indicate that progress toward achieving it has stalled.

For all the talk about flex-time, in the last 10 years, there has been no increase in the number of employers offering shorter work weeks, job-sharing or the option to work from home.

And there has been a disturbing decline in a bedrock benefit: paid maternity leave.

According to a study by the Families and Work Institute, a decade ago, 27 percent of employers offered fully, paid six-week maternity leaves. Today, just 16 percent do, which means fewer working mothers can now afford any leave at all.

"I had my son on Thursday and, on Monday, I had to go back to work," said Selena Allen, a 30-year-old mother who was working at a non-profit agency near Seattle when she had a baby five years ago.

No paid maternity leave for Allen meant leaving her premature son, Conor, in the hospital for weeks without being able to care for him.

"I was an emotional wreck, I was devastated, but in order to feed my family, I had no other option," Allen said.

Today's study showed some pockets of progress: more employers offering benefits to unmarried partners, and more offering private space for working mothers to breast-feed.

But the bottom line is that the pace of change has been glacial and, for that, the author of today's study blames the skyrocketing cost of health care benefits.

"Health care keeps going up and up, it eats into that benefits pot, that pool that employers put aside to pay for benefits, so when that goes up, other things come down," said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute.

When family-friendly benefits suffer, families do, too.