Is the prospect of being hit by the novel coronavirus, or needing to care for a family member who is, changing American attitudes about having a government program for paid family and medical leave? A new two-wave survey by the Program for Public Consultation (PPC) at the University of Maryland suggests that it may. Republicans in particular seem to be rethinking their resistance to such a program.

Congress recently passed an emergency law offering two weeks of paid leave for qualified workers who have covid-19 or are caring for someone who does. The law also requires 12 weeks at two-thirds pay but only for parents caring for children home from closed schools and child-care facilities. These benefits are set to expire at the end of 2020. We asked respondents whether they’d support a more expansive and permanent health family leave plan. Here’s what we learned.

How we did our research

PPC fielded an online survey with a nationally representative sample of 3,421 registered voters from Nielsen Scarborough’s larger sample of respondents, who were recruited by mail and telephone using a random sample of households. The first wave ran from March 5 to 10 with a sample that included 1,352 respondents for a margin of error of +/- 2.7 percent. The second wave ran from March 11 to 25, with a sample that included 2,069 respondents for a margin of error of +/- 2.2 percent.

We administered what’s called a “policymaking simulation” survey, the aim of which is to simulate a policymaker’s experience in coming to a decision. Respondents were given a briefing on a proposal based on the FAMILY Act (H.R. 1185; S. 463) and the PAID Leave Act (S. 3513), which have been introduced in this Congress but have not yet made it out of committee.

As described in the survey, the proposal would require employers to offer up to 12 weeks of leave for employees recovering from a serious health condition, caring for a family member with one, or caring from a newly born or adopted child — much more extensive than the current temporary family and medical leave program. Workers would receive two-thirds of their wages, up to a maximum of $4,000/month, from a federal government fund supported by a new payroll tax of 0.62 percent of employees’ salaries, covered evenly by the employer and the employee.

In addition to the briefing, respondents were presented strongly stated arguments for and against the proposal and asked to evaluate each one in terms of how convincing they found it. All content was reviewed by the legislation’s supporters and opponents to ensure an accurate and balanced briefing and the strongest possible arguments. Only then were respondents asked for their final recommendation for or against the proposal.

What we found

We found that, as the pandemic worsened, support for more expansive and permanent family medical leave went up — especially among older Republican respondents.

The first wave of the survey was conducted from March 5 to 10, when the United States had identified only a few covid-19 cases. Overall, 61 percent of our respondents supported the proposal — but just 38 percent of Republicans did.

We ran the second wave of the survey from March 11 to 25, during which time the pandemic was spreading rapidly, President Trump declared a nationwide state of emergency and states began issuing stay-at-home orders. During this wave, Republican support jumped 10 percentage points to 48 percent, or nearly half. Independents’ support rose from 62 to 66 percent, while Democrats’ support inched up from 83 to 86 percent. Overall, support leaped from 61 to 67 percent.

Among Republicans 65 and older, support jumped 13 points from 25 percent to 38 percent. Among Republicans ages 18 to 34, support was already fairly high in the first wave at 56 percent, and edged up only to 59 percent.

Republicans appear to have inner conflict

The survey method used lets us see more deeply into how respondents deliberate on the issue. This was particularly illuminating for Republicans, who showed quite a lot of ambivalence, with large majorities reporting that both the arguments for and against the proposal sounded convincing. This was true in early March, but became sharper in later March.

Not surprisingly, three-quarters of Republicans found convincing the classical conservative argument that “America does not need another middle-class entitlement program that is inefficient and wasteful” and that such programs should be left to employers. Likewise, 73 percent found convincing another argument that stressed that the program would entail a tax increase.

At the same time, nearly as many Republicans — fully 71 percent — found convincing the argument in favor of medical leave that “Unexpected illnesses happen and people will exhaust their ordinary sick leave” and that with just a small contribution from everyone, a safety net could protect them all. The same number also found convincing the argument for family leave that enabling people to care for children was important, and that children who couldn’t be cared for could end up being a burden to society at large.

In other words, most Republicans are internally divided, finding persuasive arguments both for and against paid health and family leave. This was mirrored in their final recommendations, which were almost evenly divided for and against the proposal.

In summary, before the U.S. coronavirus crisis took off, a majority of Americans already supported a new paid family and medical leave plan; Republicans were opposed, but ambivalently so. As the crisis worsened, Republicans increasingly supported the plan, becoming nearly divided. As more Americans sicken in the coming months, will Republicans’ opinions keep shifting? And if so, will that affect what Congress does?

Steven Kull is director of the Program for Public Consultation, part of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and of Voice Of the People (@VOPorg), a nonpartisan organization that seeks to give the public a more effective voice in government.