Paid Family Leave Program: Lessons Learned

Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times notes that while a handful of states and most developed nations offer a form of paid family leave, the United States does not. In 1993 Congress passed a law requiring twelve weeks of unpaid leave, but not much has changed since then. Miller points out that the design of paid leave policies determines whether they will be accessible and fair. Research from states and other countries is available about what does and does not work. Miller cites Lelaine Bigelow at the National Partnership for Women and Families as saying, “What we’ve seen in the states is when you make poor policy compromises, it supercharges inequities in the programs.” What do we know that works?

  • A broad range of circumstances must be covered in the paid leave policy. Research from states reveals that broadening paid leave to cover births, illnesses, domestic violence, a spouse’s military deployment, bereavement, and caregiving for extended family decreases the chance of employer discrimination against women of childbearing age. “There is evidence that employers penalize people who take leave,” reports Kathryn Anne Edwards, an economist at the RAND Corporation. If everyone is eligible to take leave at some point in their career, it is more likely to be used and supported.
  • Paid leave works best when it is for at least three months but no more than six months. In Europe, where it is common for women to take a year off after birth, women are less likely to achieve a senior role than women in the United States and are more likely to work part time. In other words, research shows that longer leaves hurt women’s careers. But if leaves are too short, then the benefits can be lost. Miller cites Maya Rossin-Slater, an economist at Stanford, as saying, “There’s no research-based reason one should go down from twelve weeks” when designing a leave policy. She goes on to state, “You lose some of the benefits like breastfeeding, maternal mental health, and child immunizations” with shorter leaves.
  • Paid leave must include job protection. If you design a leave policy without building in job protection, you don’t have much of a leave benefit. Miller points out that a significant proportion of workers, especially low-wage workers, will not use it unless job protection is included.
  • Men and low-wage workers are more likely to take paid leave if wage replacement is high. Miller notes that it makes sense that low-wage earners need close to full wage replacement to be able to afford to take leave. In California, the first state to offer paid leave in 2002, the share of replacement pay for low-wage workers increased to 70 percent in 2016. A lower percentage is available to higher-wage workers. Another finding from research on existing state programs is that men are more likely to take leave if a higher share of their income is replaced. Miller shares that “when men take leave, research shows, it has a host of benefits, including decreasing the penalties on women who take it and increasing the health of the women and children men care for.” Research from other countries shows that when men who are eligible to take leave do not take it, gender inequities deepen.

It is shameful that the United States is the only developed country that does not provide paid family leave. It is also clear that research exists about how to offer leave that really works as a benefit. Let’s encourage our government to take this step.


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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