In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law. At the time, the bill was a positive step forward for workers in the US, giving people the ability to take time off of work for the birth of a child or to care for a loved one without fear of losing their job.
While the act did make progress, it has some notable drawbacks. It only applies to businesses with more than 50 employees. Workers must have been employed for 12 months before taking leave, and must have worked 1,250 hours in that time. These restrictions mean that around 40% of American workers do not qualify for protection. The other major drawback is that leave is unpaid. While workers may have job security, they do not have income security. As a result, most who take advantage of the FMLA return to work much sooner that they would otherwise.
This lack of paid family leave is not typical. Currently, the United States is the only major country that does not guarantee some form of paid leave. The fact that we are the only industrialized country without this policy is further troubling when you consider other countries that are ahead of us on the issue. As Senator Kirsten Gillibrand pointed out, Pakistan and Afghanistan, countries in which girls aren’t even guaranteed an education, guarantee paid leave (12 and 13 weeks respectively).
While the US as a whole does not offer paid family leave, California (2002), New Jersey (2009), and Rhode Island (2014) have adopted laws guaranteeing paid time off. These laws support employees for four to six weeks at a funding level based on their salary. These three states fund their programs through payroll taxes and administer them through their state’s disability programs. For those not living in one of those three states, workers are forced to rely on access to paid leave through their job (a luxury currently enjoyed by just 12% of workers). Two other states, New York and Hawaii, have the disability tax structure already in place, and it would be relatively simple to add family leave into the mix.
The Benefits of Paid Family Leave
Paid family leave is often seen simply as a women’s issue, the term sometimes used interchangeably with maternity leave. And it is true that the primary beneficiaries are women. Mothers who have access to paid leave are more likely to be working a year later and are 54% more likely to see their wages increase (around 10-17%). Women are more likely to return to their current employer, picking up where they left off in terms of salary and position rather than starting over in a new career.
This policy especially helps less educated and minority women, whose jobs are much less likely to have such benefits. Lower income mothers are also more likely to go back to work prematurely because they can’t afford to take so much time off without pay. Paid leave can help defray child care costs, which can be extremely high.
While paid leave is often funded through taxes (a scary thought for any elected official looking to propose the measure), the government can actually save money in many cases. Ten percent of those who take unpaid leave are forced to take government assistance due to the sudden loss of income. However, mothers with access to paid leave are 40% less likely to use food stamps or other government aid.
There may also be long-term benefits to paid family leave. One study found that increases in paid leave led to a decline in dropout rates and an increase in earnings for children. These effects were strongest for children with lower educated mothers, which may reduce the intergenerational gap in earning outcomes.
Paternity Leave Needed Too
While the benefits to women are clear, these policies should not simply stop at providing maternity leave. It is becoming increasingly clear from research that a major factor in the success of family leave policies is the role of fathers and the availability of paternity leave.
Paternity leave is incredibly important for families, helping fathers bond more closely with their children early on. It has major benefits for women as well. Paternity leave can cause men to work more in the house, allow mothers to return to work more easily (increasing their career opportunities), and promote gender equality in both areas. More tangibly, each month of paternity leave taken can actually increase the mother’s salary by 6.7%.
It can also guard against discrimination. It is often argued that women are at a disadvantage in the hiring process, as employers will be less willing to hire them for fear that they will get pregnant and quit. However, if new dads are just as likely to take time off as new moms, the incentive to hire a man over a woman will have disappeared.
A major issue with paternity leave (beyond its availability) is the stigma surrounding fathers who take it. Traditionally, men who took advantage of such policies were seen as less committed to their jobs. And if the father does not take the leave, the mother is often forced to take more, hurting her career.
This was perhaps most publicly seen in 2014, when the Mets’ Daniel Murphy took time away from playing baseball to be with his wife for the birth of their child. He was criticized heavily for that decision.
However, this stigma may be changing. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently announced he will be taking advantage of his company’s paternity leave policy. It can hardly be argued that he is not committed to his work. Prince William also took time off. With these high-profile dads choosing to take time off to be with their families, more men could be encouraged to do the same. Even without such famous examples, men are much more likely to take paternity leave when they see other men do it, particularly brothers and co-workers. This produces a snowball effect, where taking time off to be with your family becomes increasingly normal.
We Can Do This Now
Paid family leave clearly has enormous policy benefits for both parents and children. But how can something like this be implemented? Fortunately, we have some great examples. In addition to the three states mentioned, several local governments have begun offering family leave to their employees. Portland now offers 6 weeks of paid leave for city employees, as do Atlanta and St. Petersburg. Cambridge, Massachusetts offers 8 weeks. At the county level, King County in Washington (home to Seattle) offers 12 weeks for county employees. While not strictly family leave, Pittsburgh is in the process of guaranteeing paid sick leave for most public and private employees in the city, following Philadelphia, which passed its own sick leave law in February. It can be done, and is being done nationwide.
The most ambitious plan, however, is in Washington D.C. Under a new proposal, almost every full or part time employee in the city, public or private, would be entitled to 16 weeks paid family leave. The proposal is considered cost effective, and has the support of an overwhelming majority of the city council.
We Can Do This Here
Louisville and Kentucky should take notice of these policies. Currently there is no guarantee of paid family leave for residents or government employees, with the exception of some workers covered under contracts. There are guarantees for unpaid time off consistent with the FMLA, and provisions for six weeks off to adopt a child under the age of seven. But this can change.
And now is a great time to take action. There are few issues as politically popular as paid family leave. 76% of Americans support laws to ensure paid leave for family care and childbirth, including 81% of women and 71% of men. Even around two-thirds of Republicans support such laws. When that many Republicans support laws guaranteeing employee benefits, it’s time for our leaders to take notice. Its benefits make the policy worth it, and its overwhelming support removes most of the risk for backing it.
Paid leave is already being discussed on the Presidential campaign trail with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Marco Rubio offering solutions. Results from these proposals, however, may be years away. We can act now here at home.
Taking on a policy of this importance would not be out of the ordinary for us. Louisville raised its minimum wage before many other places in the nation. Kentucky’s Kynect program has been has been wildly praised. Kentuckians and Louisvillians would be just as forward thinking and successful with this policy. We have the opportunity to be on the forefront of the policy debate and do the right thing for families here at home. It may be that only city or state employees receive these benefits at first. That would be a step in the right direction, make government jobs more attractive to qualified candidates, and set a positive example for other employers.