In the Oct. 13 Democratic presidential debate, the party’s front-runner, Hillary Clinton, was interrupted with applause only once during her opening statement, when she said, “I believe in equal pay for equal work for women, but I also believe it's about time we had paid family leave for American families and join the rest of the world.”
And so an issue that has slowly been growing in importance joined foreign policy, immigration, taxes, and climate change as a top issue for the 2016 presidential campaign. Employers, HR professionals, and certainly workers have been talking about paid family leave for years, but seldom has the concept had such a public hearing.
Clinton isn’t the only one to say that paid family leave should be a campaign issue for the 2016 presidential election. At the debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said the lack of a paid family leave policy was a national embarrassment for the U.S. “We should not be the only major country that does not provide medical and … family and parental leave to all of our families,” he said.
According to the latest data, Sanders is right: the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not have a national paid family leave policy in place. But it’s not just that Americans’ egos that are bruised when our policies are lumped in with those of Liberia, Suriname and Papua New Guinea. There’s also a growing body of evidence that the stress put on workers who don’t have paid family leave options creates a drag on the U.S. economy.
For his part, Martin O’Malley, another contender on the stage, and a former Mayor of Baltimore and former Governor of Maryland, said such policies had proven helpful to the overall economy of his state. “We would be a stronger nation economically if we had paid family leave,” he said.
And though several of the Republican candidates for president have dismissed the idea of paid family leave as just another big government intrusion, there’s limited support for the idea on the Republican side of the aisle as well. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has announced his plan for a paid family leave policy, a plan that would give tax credits to employers who offer this benefit to workers.
“One of the greatest threats to family today is that too many Americans have to give up being with loved ones in times of great need in order to avoid losing their jobs,” Rubio wrote in a Sept. 25 article at Medium.com. The proposal by Rubio would provide a limited 25 percent non-refundable tax credit to any business that offers between four and 12 weeks of paid leave. The refund would be capped at $4,000 per worker.
Too high a price?
Rubio argues that the Democratic approaches would raise taxes and create unfair burdens on employers. And some in the business and HR community aren’t eager to see a government-mandated program.
Lisa Horn, director of congressional affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management, says that although her group supports the concept of paid family leave, most of the members she talked to preferred a voluntary system.
“There’s definitely resistance to having it mandated,” she says. “When it’s mandated, you’re taking a one-size-fits-all, government approach to this policy, and we know that no two organizations, no two workforces, are exactly the same. Employers really value and need the flexibility to be innovative in what they offer to their workforce.”
Horn says that the fact that Rubio, as a Republican presidential candidate, is advocating a paid family leave plan is a “monumental” step. “As far as I can remember, that’s a first,” she says.
But she adds that while the discussion of family paid leave by candidates on both sides of the aisle is a positive development, the Rubio plan, with its use of tax credits, may fall short in effectively addressing the needs of employees.
“Tax credits don’t necessarily move the needle,” Horn says, noting that other programs that use tax credits haven’t always received strong buy-in from businesses. “I’m not sure it will move us as far as we need to go,” she says of the plan.
The California model
Most of the Democratic proposals about paid family leave follow the models used in states such as California, Rhode Island, Washington and New Jersey. California, the state that has led the way on the policy, has seen close to 2 million claims filed, most of them by parents caring for newborn children. The states with paid family leave policies generally fund them through an employee tax.
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising.org, a grass-roots organization that promotes programs to help working families, notes that the California law, passed in 2002, was the first of a growing movement to address the need for paid family leave.
“I think this policy has been a priority for people for so long,” she says. “It hasn’t started with this presidential election cycle. This is a policy that people have been calling for for over a decade. What we’re seeing now is the result is of momentum over many years.“
Rowe-Finkbeiner points to data that shows the California law has helped lift families from poverty, while at the same time not hurting the overall economy. In a recent CNN commentary, she said, “A 2011 study of the California Paid Family Leave program found most employers reported that providing paid family leave had a positive effect on productivity, profitability and performance, turnover and employee morale.” She also notes that polling shows consistent support for policies such as paid family leave.
“This is a policy at the pubic level that has huge support by Democrat and Republican constituents alike,” she says. “What we’re seeing now is the political leaders catch up with where their constituents have been for quite some time.”
A competitive advantage
Horn agrees with Rowe-Finkbeiner that there has been a growing movement toward offering paid family leave.
“The trend is that there will continue to be a focus on this,” Horn says. “Our opinion is that employers who offer paid leave put themselves at a competitive advantage as they compete for talent.”
Rowe-Finkbeiner says she believes many high-profile businesses have come to offer paid family leave not just because they want to help employees, but because it’s been good for business. But, she adds, there should be a universal approach.
“As we’re talking about this policy nationally as a basic workplace protection and as a social insurance program, it offers opportunities for all business to have those same gains and to be able to compete with bigger businesses that already have that policy in place,” she said. “We don’t want the patchwork approach, where you have to win the boss lottery to get paid family leave.”
One thing is certain: paid family leave will continue to be debated, and employers and workers alike will get to weigh in on what looks to be a top political issue in the 2016 campaign.