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My Turn: Presidential candidates: Are you all in on paid family leave?

Last modified: 6/21/2015 1:21:01 AM
There’s nothing Democratic or Republican, nothing left or right, about the idea that a newborn child should have a parent at home who does not have to worry about putting food on the table. But the United States remains the only nation on Earth with a developed economy that forces families into this situation. The countries with no mandatory paid maternity leave: the United States, Papua New Guinea, Suriname and a few tiny islands. Many countries also have mandatory paid paternity leave.

In digging into these issues for my new book, All In, I discovered something: There’s no good reason to oppose a national paid family leave law, which would act as an insurance system and not force employers to pay workers’ salaries during leave. Paid family leave is a win across the board: good for women, men and the cause of equality; a boon to businesses, and a necessity for children.

The fears that such programs hurt businesses have already been disproven in states that have them. In California, a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the vast majority of businesses say the state’s paid family leave law had minimal impact on operations and either boosted or didn’t affect productivity and profits. In New Jersey, a study of 18 diverse businesses found that six see the state’s program as neutral, while 12 felt it had a positive effect. Rhode Island now also has such a program. And Washington state passed a law to establish one but has not established a mechanism to carry it out.

By far, most Americans across the political spectrum support paid family leave. An exit poll during the last presidential election found that 86 percent of voters support creating a system of family and medical leave insurance – including 96 percent of Democrats, 87 percent of independents, and 73 percent of Republicans. A poll of likely 2016 voters found similar results.

A bill currently before Congress would create such a system. The FAMILY Act would collect funds through a very small payroll tax of 20 cents for each $100 a worker makes, up to an annual contribution cap of $237 per year, with equal contributions by employees and employers. When the worker needs time off to care for a family member, such as a new child or elderly parent, that worker could get some paid leave for up to 12 weeks. Workers could also use this time to recover from illness.

These programs are proven to help prevent people from dropping out of the workforce altogether. And companies that choose to offer more paid leave on their own reap rewards by attracting and retaining loyal, productive, happier workers. This includes small businesses, such as an 18-employee Boston organization I discuss in All In.

Paid family leave is also essential for pulling our work culture out of the “Mad Men” era. The lack of mandatory paid maternity leave and lack of paternity leave – only 14 percent of companies offer any, and the amount offered is decreasing – are symptomatic of a work culture designed for women to stay home and men to stay at work. (The thinking is: The woman should stay home, so who needs her salary? The man should keep working, so who needs paternity leave?)

The New York Times reported that in the Senate, numerous Republicans and Democrats provide their employees with paid family leave (on the public’s dime). But so far, most presidential candidates have not lined up behind a national policy. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is speaking out about paid family leave, suggesting she might no longer stand by something she said last year: that she did not believe a national policy was attainable now, politically. Lincoln Chafee supports a national program (he signed Rhode Island’s program into law as governor). Bernie Sanders talked about wanting to have “the resources to deal with paternity leave,” and announced he supports 12 weeks of paid family leave. There’s no sign yet of any Republican candidate expressing support for national paid family leave. And Bloomberg reported that several, as senators, voted against an amendment in March that expressed support for allowing use of a handful of paid sick days to care for family members.

Since All In published, I’ve heard from numerous nonpartisan groups wanting to align in the fight for paid family leave. A centerpiece of that effort begins today, with this opinion piece. The New Hampshire Women’s Foundation and I are collaborating to make this a key issue in the nation’s first presidential primary.

Our questions to the candidates include: Would you support a national law establishing paid family leave? Why or why not? If yes, how should it be structured? And what hard data and research do you cite in establishing your position?

Ultimately, the question boils down to: Are you “All In” for paid family leave?

Presidential races get ugly and divisive. But this issue unites Americans. Let’s hope our presidential candidates get the message.

(Josh Levs is a professional journalist, fatherhood columnist and author of “All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses – and How We Can Fix it Together.”)


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