Falk Ph.D. student research fills critical data need on U.S. family medical leave policies

The late 1990s brought an economic recession to South Korea that would turn tradition on its head. Previously, fathers held jobs and mothers raised the children at home. The recession thrust many mothers into the workplace while middle and high schoolers like Woosang Hwang adjusted to a new home life. It’s what prompted him to study family policy and issues affecting dual-income families.

As a doctoral candidate in human development and family science, Hwang’s dissertation examines the effects of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) on dual-income families in the United States. The FMLA allows eligible employees to take job-protected leave for specified reasons. However, parental leave is just 12 weeks and is unpaid. “Three months is not enough for both father and mother to take care of their children, compared to European countries that provide more than 180 days or six months,” argues Hwang.

He has been investigating this issue since 2015 under the advisement of Dr. Eunjoo Jung, associate professor of human development and family science at Falk College.

“The findings of Hwang’s project will provide theoretical and empirical evidence for both policy and academic fields to evaluate the current maternity leave policy in the United States,” says Jung. “His research is already assisting us to understand the status and challenges of low fertility, employed women, and intergenerational family relations. “This line of work has great promise to help us understand how we can prevent the lost potential in children and families in various contexts around the world.”

Hwang’s dissertation, “The Impacts of the Family and Medical Leave Act on Second-Birth Intentions: An Actor-Partner Interdependence Model,” will be recognized with the Feldman Outstanding Research Proposal for Research in Family Policy award at the 2016 National Council on Family Relations Annual Conference November 2-5 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he will also receive an Issues in Aging Focus Group award for his work with the Syracuse University Aging Studies Institute on “Religious Discordance between Adult Children and Their Parents: Consequences for Intergenerational Solidarity across Several Decades.”

Hwang describes an unpaid leave scenario in which a parent is forced to reduce the family budget and therefore feels pressured to return to work sooner rather than later. Furthermore, employees are often concerned that parental leave will negatively impact their career by putting them at a disadvantage for promotions or wage increases. It creates what Hwang describes as an “internal conflict” that is not good for the parent or the child.

Hwang’s research shows that when mothers utilize maternity leave, the children demonstrate better developmental outcomes. “[Parents] can take care of their children from birth to three months or six months,” says Hwang. “That is a very critical period.”

The U.S. trails behind many nations as far as family leave policy, Hwang says. “To change policymakers’ and politicians’ attitudes and get them to think about this policy, then researchers should provide a lot of empirical evidence,” Hwang explains. Unlike European nations, the U.S. has very few empirical studies regarding this topic, and what research does exist is based on outdated data collected in the mid-1990s. “That data cannot represent today’s dual-income families’ attitudes and behaviors regarding the policy,” adds Hwang.

The U.S. fertility rate has steadily declined from 1960 to 2015. But today, Hwang notes, the drop has become alarmingly sharp among employed women, a trend that could greatly impact the economy as the U.S. labor population decreases and the aging population and expectant lifespan continue to increase.

Hwang believes that revising the FMLA to incorporate extended, paid parental leave is the first step to altering the perception of parental leave. A revised policy, Hwang hopes, will change employers’ mindsets, thus allowing employees to take leave free of concern. Parents will no longer have to choose between their family and their job, which will ultimately benefit the parent, child, and society as a whole.