Paid family leave is a political mystery. Most voters support a policy that would allow any employee time away from work to bond with a newborn child or care for a sick relative — as is largely the case throughout the industrialized world and in states like California. But the closest it’s ever come to being written into federal law was as part of the original Build Back Better Act championed by the Biden administration — where it became so contentious, it ultimately led to that bill’s demise. Here are two arguments detailing the pros and cons.

Hidden costs 

Some argue that paid family leave is necessary to bring the United States into alignment with other industrialized countries, but that would simply mimic a policy that has already backfired elsewhere.

In 2018, Cato Institute analyst Vanessa Brown Calder reviewed the literature on the impact of paid leave. Trade-offs for these policies vary depending on specific cases, but they include discrimination against workers of childbearing age and perhaps in favor of older workers, resulting in fewer leadership roles, higher unemployment and lesser pay for women.

Advocates often argue that paid family leave will reduce gender inequality in the workplace. A recent study from Denmark suggests that this is hardly the case. The researchers found that while pay grew at roughly the same rates for men and women before they had kids, mothers saw their earnings rapidly reduced by nearly 30 percent on average, compared to the trajectory they were on before. It also found that women may become less likely to work, and if still employed, work fewer hours.

Besides, the absence of a federal mandate doesn’t mean that American women don’t get paid leave. As Brown Calder writes, “Over the past 50 years, the private sector has substantially increased paid leave offerings; this suggests the private market responds to employee demands.” According to her analysis, between 45 and 63 percent of workers reported they already had access to paid leave. 

The women who don’t receive this benefit are mostly less-skilled workers with part-time and hourly jobs employed at small businesses. Mandates will likely harm them. Here’s why: Paid leave is costly, and when firms provide this benefit they change the composition of their employees’ total compensation by reducing the value of workers’ take-home pay to offset the cost. While some prefer this mix in their pay packages, others don’t. In particular, mandated leave would be a hard trade-off for many lower-paid women who would prefer as much take-home pay as possible.  

Adapted from two columns by Veronique de Rugy, a contributing editor for Reason magazine and a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

A fair shake

National paid leave represents a real step forward in gender equality, especially for working women of color, like myself. Though it has its limitations, it would address gender wage gaps that potentially occur at two key moments in life — childbearing and caregiving. Many men and women do each of these things with grace. It’s natural to expect that many of us would experience one or both at some point in our lives, and we may already know someone who does.

Research suggests that racial and gender discrimination, harassment in the workplace and long gaps from work because of family caregiving obligations have all contributed to a gender wage gap that women still feel today. Federal paid leave wouldn’t solve all these problems, but it would meaningfully chip away at them.

When women do not have paid time off after having a baby, nearly 30 percent drop out of the workforce within the first year. However, in states that have implemented paid leave, women are less likely to leave their jobs in the first year and are more likely to see an increase in earnings. Paid family leave helps fathers as well. Having men at home gives them an important time to bond with their child, while equalizing household work and allowing women to continue to thrive in the workforce. 

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And then there’s caregiving. Nearly 50 million unpaid caregivers live in the U.S., and most are women. As a doctor working in the hospital, I frequently encounter caregivers who are vital in shaping a patient’s support system once they’re released from our care. Nevertheless, only 13 percent of workers in the U.S. have access to employer-based paid family leave. It’s a policy that would help protect caregivers from choosing between attending to a loved one and maintaining job security.

Paid leave would begin to level the playing field for women across the span of their careers. Let’s undo the false choice between family life and financial stability and start recognizing the importance of both.   

Adapted from an opinion piece in The Hill by Courtney Lee, an associate fellow of the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics and a clinical fellow in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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