The time is now for paid family leave

It results in better outcomes for parents, children and businesses


Published:

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.

Twenty-two years later, we are still waiting for step two. Rep. Mary Stuart Gile is the unsung heroine of paid family leave in New Hampshire. For years, she has brought forward bills to advance the 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.

Representative Gile’s bills have typically stalled because of opposition from business lobbyists and 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.

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.

Only 12 percent of workers in the United States have access to paid family leave. Under the current FMLA, only about 60 percent of all workers are even covered by unpaid family leave. Some significant percentage of the covered cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

Millions of workers juggle caregiving responsibilities for young children or aging parents with work responsibilities. The challenges of juggling work and family can be particularly acute in single-parent households.

While Americans like to brag we are No. 1 in various international contests, when it comes to paid family leave we are number last. With the exception of Papua New Guinea, every other nation in the world now requires paid maternity leave.

Among the most generous, Sweden offers 16 months of paid parental leave. Finland offers nine months of paid leave, and parents there 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 and Congo offer 14 weeks, and Mexico offers 12 weeks. Seventy countries offer paid paternity leave: Iceland offers fathers three 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, shows that 23 percent 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 shows 80 percent of women who were college graduates took at least six weeks off to care for a new baby while only 54 percent of women without college degrees did so.

Workers in lower-paid jobs with fewer 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.

It isn’t 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 breast-feeding.

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.

A proposal in Congress, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (the FAMILY Act) would provide 12 weeks of paid leave, during which workers would receive 66 percent of their monthly wages. The program would be paid for through small payroll contributions made by employees and employers.

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.

America should not be the worst country in the world on paid family leave. Surely we can do better than that.

Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works at the Social Security Administration. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer.

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