Now is the time to move forward on paid family and medical leave
A solid majority of Americans, from both parties, endorse paid family and medical leave. There are proposals for paid leave in Congress and the President’s budget. A recent bipartisan proposal from an AEI/Brookings working group, of which I am a member, is also garnering a lot of attention. This is an opportune time to enact a federal policy to provide paid family and medical leave to all employees.
Acting on the evidence
The evidence on parental leave is clear: children do better when parents can stay home longer. Benefits include increases in breastfeeding, decreases in maternal depression, and more “well-baby” visits and immunizations. My current project is examining the effects of California’s paid leave policy on just these kinds of outcomes.
There is also evidence of health benefits from other kinds of leave. For example, sick children recover more quickly when their parents can care for them. The role of parents is especially important for children with chronic health conditions. But we also know from existing research that if leave is unpaid, many employees, especially lower-income ones, cannot take advantage of it.
Building on the FMLA
The landmark Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 recognizes that employees should not lose their jobs simply because they have a new child, have a family member who needs care due to serious illness, or are seriously ill themselves. The FMLA has since been amended to recognize special caregiving needs that arise when family members serve in the military or are injured during service.
But the FMLA provides only unpaid leave. As we move toward a federal paid leave policy, it would be wise to offer paid leave for all the types of leave covered under the FMLA, recognizing that each matters to the health and well-being of employees, their families, and entire communities.
Parental leave may be simplest to tackle. The case for a parent being home with a newborn or new child is clear, and, from an employer perspective, such events are infrequent, prepared for in advance, and easily defined and verified. Other family leaves and medical leaves may occur more frequently and unexpectedly, and may be harder to define and verify. Yet, other types of family and medical leaves can be just as necessary, and if all employees pay into a program, it is only fair that they all should benefit.
Additionally, while the FMLA excludes small firms, in fact many of these employers offer job-protected leaves because they wish to retain valued employees. There is no evidence that state paid leave laws, which cover small firms, have been overly burdensome for them. Employees in smaller firms need paid leave for all the same reasons that employees in larger firms do. It should also go without saying that men and women should benefit equally.
Building on state policies
A new federal law could follow the model of the state paid family and medical leave laws, which fund paid leave through social insurance pools, funded by employee contributions (e.g., in California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York) or employee and employer contributions (in Washington). Whatever the funding mechanism, a federal program should be progressive, providing the greatest benefits to those most in need. For this reason, I favor a policy that provides a relatively high percentage of an employee’s usual earnings, up to a relatively low maximum, to ensure that low-income workers receive a relatively high proportion of their actual salary. Individual employers and states would be able to go beyond the national policy and provide more generous benefits if they choose.
Now is the time to move forward on a national policy that builds on the growing evidence base, the legacy of the FMLA, and recent state laws, to provide paid family and medical leave to all employees. The compromise proposal recently put forward by the AEI/Brookings group—recommending eight weeks of paid parental leave, for all employees, regardless of firm size—is not perfect. It does not address all types of paid family and medical leave, and provides less than the 12 weeks covered by the FMLA (and much less than the 12 months provided by our peer countries). But the proposal at least moves us forward on paid parental leave, is gender neutral, proposes to cover all employees regardless of firm size, and proposes a progressive benefit structure. For these reasons, it is an important step in the right direction—one that hopefully will help us seize this moment to finally move forward on enacting a federal law providing paid family and medical leave to all employees.