Opponents of a national paid family and medical leave program often argue that paid leave is simply too expensive, too burdensome for employers and that it will kill jobs. But these are the same claims that have been used for more than a hundred years, whenever the conversation has turned to improving labor safety standards. The same talking points that were once used to oppose the installation of water sprinklers after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — which killed 146 workers.
Today, a new and ironic chapter has been added to this antiquated tale of woe: Opponents claim that paid family and medical leave would hold back the very working women it is intended to help. After all, critics contend, there is international research indicating that maternity leave makes women less likely to return to work and more likely to experience employment discrimination.
However, there is not a single proposal for paid leave in the United States that comes close to offering the lengths of leave available in counties where these effects have been measured. The program structures that have been proposed in the United States would not result in the gendered disadvantage that critics fear.
A number of academic studies have made these points clear. Tel Aviv University sociologists Haya Stier and Hadas Mandel looked at the relationship between paid maternity leave and women’s workforce participation and found that such leave decreased women’s labor force participation only in countries where women were eligible for maternity leaves of six months or longer. The Slovak Republic, Czech Republic and Hungary have the lowest rates of employment for mothers with a child under the age of 3 in any OECD country, perhaps in part because they offer prolonged maternity leave that can last up to three years. In countries that offered less than six months of leave, however, they found a positive relationship between maternity leave and women’s labor force participation.
The 12 weeks of paid leave proposed federally — most notably through the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act — is very conservative by international standards and would not be likely to result in the same negative impacts on mothers’ employment rates. California and New Jersey offer six weeks of paid parental leave, while Rhode Island offers four weeks, with birth mothers also eligible for additional temporary disability leave to recover from childbirth. New York’s new program will offer 12 weeks of paid family leave once fully implemented, while the program currently proposed in Washington, D.C., would offer up to 16.
Just as notably, the paid leave proposals in the United States and state laws currently on the books are gender-neutral and are not limited just to cases of new birth or adoption.
Men and women would be eligible for the same lengths of leave, and leave could be taken to care for seriously ill family members or to address a worker’s own serious health issue. The broad applicability of these policies makes it extremely unlikely that women would be singled out for unfair treatment or employment discrimination. When paid leave becomes something that all workers may need to take, rather than something that is only taken by women of childbearing age, it’s much harder to stigmatize the workers who need it.
But can businesses afford it? None of the current proposals or existing state laws in the United States place the cost burden for providing paid leave on employers. In California and Rhode Island, the existing temporary disability and paid family leave insurance programs are funded entirely through a small payroll tax on employees. In New Jersey, employers kick in a small amount, not to exceed $163 per worker per year.
Paid family and medical leave programs are inexpensive because they are structured as social insurance programs. Rather than expecting an employer to cover the full cost of wage replacement when a worker takes leave, small premiums are collected into a trust fund so the money is there when people need it — just like with other forms of insurance. Even San Francisco, which recently made headlines by requiring employers to contribute toward workers’ paid leave benefits, is only asking employers to “top off” the benefits workers would receive through a state program that is funded entirely by workers’ own payroll tax contributions.
The economic research on paid leave is clear: Leaves of moderate duration make workers more likely to return to work, and to return to work with higher wages. Surveys of California employers conducted in 2009 and 2010 demonstrated that rather than causing the sky to fall, paid leave has had no negative impact on productivity or profitability. Reasonable people may debate how much leave should be offered, which life events should be covered, or how to pay for it, but it’s misleading and inaccurate to say that the country with the largest economy on Earth can’t make paid leave happen.
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