Working in retail, Adrianne Hamilton is accustomed to weekend shifts and other odd hours. But it still was difficult when her schedule would not allow her to attend her daughter's first-grade play, the child's first major school activity following the family's move to Atlanta a few months earlier.
"I apologized that I couldn't make it and [said] we would do something special when I got off and she was done from school," Hamilton recalled, adding that she has since cut back her hours to spend more time with both of her daughters, ages 7 and 3.
Hamilton is lobbying with Atlanta 9to5, a local chapter of the National Association of Working Women, for passage of a law in Georgia that would allow parents to take time off from work to attend their children's school functions without fear of losing their jobs.
Georgia is one of several states considering legislation to create or expand existing allotments of such parental leave, which covers everything from parent-teacher conferences to extracurricular activities. Ten states already have similar laws in place.
"The more children see adults involved in their education, the more we're going to have children finishing school," said Iris Martinez, a Democratic state senator from Chicago who has sponsored a bill in Illinois that would increase the current amount of leave. "It's important for kids to see that we're really involved in their schoolwork during the day."
While many family and work groups endorse such initiatives, there is resistance from some in the business community who fear the laws place unfair burdens on employers and affect productivity.
"It's one of those pieces of legislation that, if it becomes law, it will not in a big way but in a small way … eat away at our ability to be productive and have that edge that we've had in recent years," Jay Shattuck, executive director of the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce's Employment Law Council, said of the bill that has passed the Illinois Senate.
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, 10 states require leave for participation in children's educational activities. California offers the most time, with 40 hours a year and no more than eight hours per month, while Washington, D.C., Massachusetts and Vermont offer 24 hours a year.
Illinois provides eight hours a year and no more than four hours a day, but this could increase to 24 hours a year if Martinez's bill becomes law. Louisiana and Minnesota offer 16 hours a year, Rhode Island provides 10 hours, North Carolina allows four hours and Nevada provides no maximum time but prohibits terminating employees who go to school conferences or leave work because of an emergency involving their child.
Among the states considering such laws are Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Maryland, New York, Wisconsin and Colorado, the group's research shows. All proposals but Colorado's would provide paid time off that is separate from existing vacation or personal time. Colorado's law would allow unpaid leave.
"It's a growing trend," said Jodi Grant, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families. "It always strikes me as odd talking about job-protected leave … this is something we all should take for granted."
New Schools of Thought
The practice of providing parents with flexibility for school events has been gaining steam since the 1990s when Clinton administration Education Secretary Richard Riley made it an initiative to encourage families to spend time off with their children, said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute.
"He did it as a voluntary thing. He didn't push for legislation," Galinsky said. "Companies let parents off for the first day of school, and there were a lot of companies very eager to sign up [for such benefits]."
The current political climate also fosters such programs. The laws jibe with provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires parents to be informed of changing policies and programs in their children's schools and encourages parental involvement in such things as parent-teacher meetings and volunteering at school.
Still, Shattuck said that -- at least in Illinois -- the current law is sufficient and the new definition of school activity is so broad it could create problems. "I think we're going down a very slippery slope where many of these benefits are well-intentioned but end up harming productivity, disrupting the workplace and putting Illinois companies at a competitive disadvantage," he said.
But proponents note that employees are required to give notice and get approval for time off, and they are less likely to leave their companies in a bind by leaving at the last minute. "It puts almost a stop to the sick days that people call in because you can take time intermittently," said Jeannette Galanis, director of 9to5 Colorado. "It makes employees happier in the end."
Grant added: "Most parents, they're going to be very concerned about trying to accommodate their employer in every way possible. In a lot of ways, parents are the best workers. They need the job and that paycheck."
According to the Families and Work Institute, most employers surveyed in a national study conducted several years ago allowed employees to take time off during the work day to attend to their children's school or child-care functions, without being required by their states to do so.
"Whether it should be a law or a carrot or a stick, it's a very important thing to do," Galinsky said. "Employers don't like mandates. Employers don't like intermittent leave because it's hard to track."
As an alternative, she said, many firms are offering paid time off that is not designated for sick days or vacation time and can be used for whatever purposes employees need.
Marshall Miller, co-founder of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, said these rules are a good idea, but childless people should not be excluded. "There's no reason to limit that kind of policy to just parents," Miller said. "Everyone can benefit. You should be able to take time off from work to take a friend to a chemotherapy appointment or take care of your mother or go to your father's retirement party.
"Society benefits, because the more you can provide opportunities to care for one another, that's less of a toll on everyone else," he added. "If someone's willing to take unpaid time off from work to care for somebody, that means that Medicare doesn't have to."
For Hamilton, such flexibility would have allowed her to be with her daughter for an important occasion. "It would have been really nice," she said, adding, "[My boss] goes by the law, so if there is a law in place … she would have said OK."