It is time for paid family and medical leave – posted 12/26/2015
This campaign season the issues of terrorism and national security have pushed domestic matters into the background. That is too bad because we are starved for discussion of new policy ideas on the home front.
This is the first presidential election where paid family and medical leave has been discussed by the candidates as a real possibility. You have to ask: what took so long?
The Family and Medical Leave Act, also known as the FMLA, mandated 12 weeks of unpaid leave for employees in companies of 50 workers or more. The FMLA passed in 1993. Advocates at the time of bill passage thought the FMLA was only a first step in addressing family friendly employment leave policies.
Here we are 22 years later and we are still waiting for step two. This in spite of the fact that the FMLA has been widely recognized as a very successful and popular program.
In an earlier life when I worked as a lobbyist in the New Hampshire Legislature, I tried to assist bills in multiple legislative sessions that were designed to create paid family and medical leave in our state. In those efforts, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Rep. Mary Stuart Gile of Concord.
Rep. Gile is the unsung heroine of paid family leave in New Hampshire. For years, Rep. Gile has brought forward bills to advance that issue. She deserves credit for consistently trying a variety of ways to promote paid family leave and for making compelling policy arguments for why it would be good for our state.
In her advocacy, Rep. Gile has been a genuine educator. As those around the Legislature know, it can often take a very long time to translate a new idea, even a very good idea, into law.
I believe the bills Rep. Gile has introduced in the past have typically stalled because of opposition from business lobbyists and also from very conservative elements in the Republican party. The lobbyists always raised questions about the funding mechanism. While the questions were valid, it often seemed like fear of something new and any possible cost immediately trumped recognition of perceived benefits.
It would be one thing if the idea had never been tried or if it had been tried and it failed. Three states have successfully instituted paid family and medical leave – New Jersey, California, and Rhode Island. In these states, predictions of adverse consequences never materialized. Where it has been tried, paid family and medical leave has helped thousands of workers.
Two-thirds of children in the United States live in homes where both parents work. That is up from 40% in 1970. Only 12% of workers in the United States have access to paid family leave. These workers are typically higher earners, often located in the high tech industry. Under the current FMLA, only about 60% of all workers are even covered by unpaid family leave. Some significant percentage of the covered cannot afford to take unpaid leave.
These demographics dictate the increased importance of paid family leave. Millions of workers juggle caregiving responsibilities for young children or aging parents with work responsibilities. The timing of the birth of a new born or an unexpected illness of a family member can throw a monkey wrench into complicated work and family schedules. The challenges of juggling work and family can be particularly acute in single parent households.
Here in the United States, we have been remarkably slow in recognizing the importance of paid family leave. While Americans like to brag we are number one in various international contests, when it comes to paid family leave we are number last. We are the outlier country. With the exception of very small Papua New Guinea, every other nation in the world now requires paid maternity leave.
Just to gain perspective, I think it is important to see what other countries are doing with paid family leave. Among the most generous, Sweden offers 16 months of paid parental leave. Finland offers 9 months of paid leave. The parents in Finland can take or split additional paid “child care leave” until the child’s third birthday.
The United Kingdom offers 40 weeks of paid maternity leave, Vietnam and Ireland offer 26 weeks, Canada offers 15 weeks, China offers 14 weeks, Congo offers 14 weeks and Mexico offers 12 weeks. Obviously, there are many countries I am not listing but what is important is that all offer some benefit.
70 countries offer paid paternity leave. To give a sampling, Iceland offers fathers 3 months paid paternity leave, Finland offers 54 days, Portugal offers 20 days, Spain offers 15 days and the United Kingdom and Australia offer 14 days.
Investigative journalist Sharon Lerner writes that many other cultures treat the immediate post-natal period as a sacred time when both the new mother and baby receive help and special attention. Too often, in the United States, the lack of time off can turn new motherhood into what Lerner calls a distressing ordeal.
No federal agency collects statistics on how much post-childbirth time off, paid or unpaid, women are actually taking. Data analyzed for the periodical, In These Times, by Abt Associates, a research and evaluation company, showed that 23% of the women interviewed were back at work within two weeks of having a baby. If true, that is a cold and brutal fact.
The data showed 80% of women who were college graduates took at least 6 weeks off to care for a new baby while only 54% of women without college degrees did so.
I believe the lack of paid family leave hits low-income workers harder. Workers in lower paid jobs with less benefits have no choice but to return to work soon after giving birth. If they don’t return, they probably lose the job. Such workers generally have no leverage with employers.
Paid family leave results in better outcomes for parents, children and businesses. It increases worker retention and it reduces turnover. More women will be able to stay in the workforce after giving birth. At the same time, businesses save dollars associated with replacing employees.
Worker stress is bad for business. It is likely that a more progressive family leave policy would result in increased productivity, improved employee morale, and greater company loyalty.
On the health side, paid family leave positively affects the health of children and mothers. I don’t think it is rocket science to recognize that more parental time at home confers health benefits to young children. It allows for better family bonding and a longer duration of breastfeeding.
There is quite a bit of research showing that the experience of interacting with familiar, responsive and stimulating primary caregivers during the first two years of life is critically important to a child’s later social, emotional and intellectual development.
The Republican presidential candidates have had little to say about paid family leave. Marco Rubio is the only Republican candidate to have any kind of plan for providing paid family leave to workers but his plan is hardly a guarantee. He would offer tax incentives to business to encourage having it. Rubio doesn’t think paid leave should be federally legislated. All the other Republican candidates oppose the idea totally.
On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have all endorsed mandatory paid family leave. Sanders described our lack of paid family leave as “an international embarrasment”, which it is.
Democrats are pushing a proposal, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (the FAMILY Act) which would provide 12 weeks of paid leave, during which workers would receive 66% of their monthly wages. The program would be paid for through small payroll contributions made by employees and employers. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Ct) are the prime bill sponsors.
It is important to say that the paid leave proposal is not an entitlement. It would be an earned benefit. Workers have to be employed and must have paid into the system in order to collect benefits.
There is some polling data which shows that the idea of paid family leave is extremely popular with voters. An early 2015 poll from Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling form, found that a large majority agreed with paid time off to care for family members. This cut across voters of all persuasions.
America should not be the worst country in the world on paid family leave. Surely we can do better than that.