Today, women make up nearly half of the total workforce in America, yet many are forced to choose between having children and continuing their careers. While women strive to have it all, they find it difficult to do so. This shift in the makeup of the American family requires a change in paid family leave policy to accommodate the millions of Americans who must choose between family responsibilities and their careers or earning an income. A 2013 Center for American Progress study found that seventy-one percent of children live in a family with either two working parents or a single parent, further demonstrating the need for such a policy change. Perhaps most striking, the United States is one of only three developed countries (out of 185 surveyed) that does not guarantee some form of paid family leave. This omission represents a severe lack of forward-thinking on the part of U.S. policymakers and demonstrates how far behind the country is in providing what should be a basic protection in the workplace. Parents should not have to worry about losing their jobs or falling into economic hardship because they want to be involved in their child’s early development.
Private Sector Leadership
The private sector has become a leader in paid family leave policy, despite the federal government’s slow uptake on the issue. Companies such as Facebook, Netflix, Microsoft, and Nestle provide their employees with anywhere from twelve weeks to one year of paid leave to care for a newborn. Nestle has commissioned a study of its paid leave program (14 weeks of paid leave and the right to an additional six months of unpaid leave) in order to demonstrate that providing this benefit makes good business sense. The study plans to collect data on how many employees take advantage of the paid leave policy and how many of those employees remain at Nestle after returning from leave at six, twelve, and eighteen months.
Companies like Nestle, which have paved the way in progressive paid family leave policy, understand that this issue is about more than doing what’s right. Providing paid leave bolsters the economy by increasing the number of people in the labor force and strengthening an employee’s loyalty to his/her place of business. In 2013, one-in-five parents reported taking a leave of absence from work in order to address caregiving responsibilities. Similarly, a U.S. Census study on maternity leave reported that a quarter of first-time mothers either had to quit or were let go when they had their babies, and a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from 2014 found that sixty-one percent of nonworking women cite family responsibilities as the reason for their departure from the workforce. In addition to hurting the labor force, this also damages businesses because it creates a revolving door of new employees that acts as a drain on a company’s morale and payroll. The average cost of replacing an employee is twenty-one percent of their salary, which oftentimes is a more significant cost than providing paid leave would have been. In addition, the cyclical pattern of parents moving in and out of the workforce is disadvantageous to women, who, if they have taken unpaid leave, are more likely to end up in a different job upon returning to the workforce, thereby hurting their chances for promotion
While fifty-nine percent of workers have access to up to twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, many families (forty-six percent) cannot afford to take such unpaid leave after the birth of a newborn. This leaves families to choose between earning an income and caring for a child. This decision is particularly difficult for low-income families, as many of them cannot afford to take unpaid time off. Given the many disparities in paid family leave policy in the private sector, as well as the lack of protection afforded to low-income families with the current federal policy, it is time that the federal government take a page from the private sector and implement a progressive paid family leave policy in the form of a federal mandate.
A Federal Mandate to Follow
Only several months into the 2016 presidential campaign, candidates, including Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio, have proposed their own paid family leave policies. While different in their approach, both policies underscore the belief that the current federal policy is not enough. Earlier this month, the D.C. Council introduced the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015, which would provide almost all part- and full-time employees with 16 weeks of paid leave — the first of its kind in the nation. While these plans are encouraging for the future of paid leave, a federal law is necessary to ensure equal access across the nation. Federal paid family leave is the most practical and equitable way to protect new parents from having to choose between a career and caring for their child. A competitive, responsive work sector, which comes as a result of offering paid family leave, will guarantee that the U.S. remains competitive in a global economy. Federally mandating at least twelve weeks of paid family leave would have a positive impact on the large number of parents in the workforce and would benefit the economy. In order to best serve the parents, children, and businesses in this country, it is time to pass paid family leave legislation.
*The views expressed are my own and do not reflect those of Priorities USA Action.
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