Paid Family Leave Is No Child’s Play

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Experts examine the benefits and complexities of a paid family leave mandate in the United States.

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The United States remains the only wealthy nation in the world without mandated paid family leave.

President Joseph R. Biden proposed 12 weeks of federally guaranteed family leave for elder care and childcare as part of the American Families Plan. But paid family leave became a bargaining chip during negotiations over the spending plan: Lawmakers first cut the plan to four weeks, then removed it completely, and finally reintroduced a four-week plan.

In the absence of a federal mandate for employers, low-wage, Black, and Latinx workers disproportionately do not have access to paid family leave compared to higher income and white workers. Only 8 percent of workers who earn less than $14 an hour accessed paid leave in 2020.

Currently, the only federal family leave regulation falls under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), which grants 12 weeks of unpaid job protection to some workers. The FMLA and its implementing regulations only apply to workers who meet the statute’s definition of “employee” and do not include any paid leave requirements, except for federal employees. This definition excludes approximately 40 percent of the workforce who do not qualify as employees under the FMLA.

For those who qualify as employees, the FMLA only grants job-protected leave to care for oneself, a parent, child, or spouse. This narrow scope excludes many individuals who may have caregiving responsibilities outside of their nuclear family. A recent study found only 18.4 percent of Americans live in families with traditional nuclear structures. Members of the LGBTQ community often rely on their “chosen family” or partners who they are not legally married to for care. President Biden’s paid leave proposal could have potentially expanded the FMLA’s definitions to include care for family members beyond a spouse, parent, or child.

Despite the uncertain future of  paid family leave in the American Families Plan, some experts remain optimistic that paid leave proposals will return and will be more likely to survive as an independently proposed rule.

In this week’s Saturday Seminar, experts discuss recent scholarship on the regulation of paid family leave.

  • National paid family leave is an opportunity to promote health equity, argue Kimberly Montez and Sharon Thomson of Wake Forest School of Medicine, and Vicki Shabo of New America in an article in Pediatrics. A national mandate for paid family leave could positively impact health equity and costs. Montez, Thomson, and Shabo explain, paid parental leave positively impacts preterm birth rates, infant birth weights, and infant mortality rates. At the same time, paid leave closes gaps in racial inequality, reduces health care costs, and benefits the economy.
  • In a forthcoming essay in the Yale Law Journal, Deborah A. Widiss of Indiana University Maurer School of Law advocates the inclusion of “chosen family” in FMLA family leave benefits. Widiss explains the FMLA confines family leave to very specific types of relationships. She argues this narrow scope fails to capture the need of modern relationships and “chosen family.” The expansion of leave regulations to reflect the reality of familial relationships is not without administrative challenges, Widiss explains. She suggests agencies that develop expanded definitions of family in the statutory language of new regulations will need to educate the public on the types of relationships that the policies cover.
  • In a chapter in the Contributions to Management Science series, Alison Koslowski of the University of Edinburgh School of Social and Political Science and Margaret O’Brien of the University College London explain that parental leave policies designed for fathers encourage paternal availability with young children, which is important for the developmental psychology of infants. Koslowki and O’Brien discuss that employees who are fathers who do not receive paid family leave often take paid vacation time instead, which overall leads to less time spent with their children. To increase paternal presence for young children, Koslowski and O’Brien recommend that policymakers increase the number of fathers taking leave by creating strong incentives, such as high-income replacement.
  • Do family policies, such as parental leave and childcare, impact gender inequality? Henrik Kleven of Princeton University and his coauthors in a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the impact in Austria was extremely small. Kleven and his coauthors conclude that expansions of subsidies for childcare and parental leave “have had virtually no impact” on converging the roles of women and men, based on administrative data from the Austrian labor market. Kleven and his coauthors highlight the need for a greater understanding of the interaction between gendered preferences that drive career choices and the development of public policies within different labor markets to better respond to gender gaps.
  • Paid parental leave can disadvantage single-parent families, Deborah A. Widiss of Indiana University Maurer School of Law argues in an article in the Minnesota Law Review. Widiss explains that families with a single parent can receive only half as much parental leave time and benefits as families with two legally recognized parents, so children of single parents receive less personal care from their parents. This reality presents a significant problem for women because 40 percent of new mothers are not married and most bear responsibility for childcare. Widiss urges legislators to provide an extended period of benefits for sole parents or allow a broader range of family members to claim benefits for childcare.
  • In a recent paper published by IZA Institute of Labor Economics (IZA), Esther Mirjam Girsberger of University of Technology Sydney and several coauthors examine the impact of Switzerland’s first paid maternity leave mandate on labor market outcomes and the fertility of women who had their first child after the introduction of the mandate. Switzerland’s mandate requires all employers to protect the jobs of women for up to 16 weeks post-childbirth and pay them 80 percent of their pre-birth salary for 14 weeks. Girsberger and her coauthors found that the paid maternity leave mandate had small positive impacts in the shorter term, especially for women with lower wage jobs. In the long run, however, the market impacts dissipated and the mandate had a significant impact on subsequent fertility. Three years after giving birth, women were 3 percent more likely to have another child than without the mandate.

The Saturday Seminar is a weekly feature that aims to put into written form the kind of content that would be conveyed in a live seminar involving regulatory experts. Each week, The Regulatory Review publishes a brief overview of a selected regulatory topic and then distills recent research and scholarly writing on that topic.