The Question is Whether We Take it
With the slew of policy proposals out of Senator Warner’s Presidential campaign, and her opponents scrambling to put out their own reform packages, the political climate has never been better for America to finally join the rest of the world in providing paid maternity leave (even Bulgaria provides it — Bulgaria!). Senator Warner and Gillibrand have both voiced support for Paid Family Leave Policies, and Americans widely support paid family and medical leave, even if they differ over specific policies. Currently, only 14% of Americans have access to such leave.
Five states already have Short Term Disability or Paid Family Leave Programs that offer a model for getting such a program off the ground quickly, at minimal to low cost to employees and employers, while also providing medical leave for those suffering from cancer, and other illnesses and injuries. Hawaii requires employers to insure employees or pay out up to six months of benefits directly. Currently, California and Rhode Island fund their programs through an employee payroll tax, while New Jersey and New York impose an employee and an employer payroll tax (Washington’s takes effect in 2020). In those states, a portion of each paycheck goes to a short term insurance fund. When you are sick, or ready to take maternity leave, the fund is available to anyone who has worked and paid into the system. Like social security, the system is not income qualified, and it does not require employees pay in more than they take out. There is typically a waiting period, but the short term disability policy covers 50% to 90% of salary with leave ranging from 4–12 weeks.
There are of course several problems with the current programs that should be addressed:
- There shouldn’t be a waiting period. Whether for maternity coverage, cancer treatment, or any other type of leave the idea that at one of the most vulnerable periods of their lives we ask people who are unwell to go without income for two weeks is cruel. 40% of Americans can’t cover a surprise $400 expense, and six in ten can’t cover a $1000 expense. As the shut down showed us many are not equipped to go without a paycheck.
- Pay should be at 100%. The current system provides a reduced benefit, which may have helped these Paid Family Leave programs get off the ground, but we shouldn’t be requiring the sick and disabled to choose between returning to work and paying bills. Options for fully funding leave include reinvesting reserve balances from those who don’t end up getting sick, requiring employers to pay a portion into the system, or topping off deficits with general fund money.
- Supervisors are generally exempt. This is problematic since often employers classify employees to avoid triggering overtime rules, even though these employees don’t actually make more money or have better leave packages. In California at least this leaves a number of workers scrambling when they apply for short term leave and are told they don’t qualify.
Federalizing the system, or allowing states to administer the program but with the same set of strict rules would provide an opportunity to fix these issues and get a system in place quickly. Since individuals pay into the system the program should be extended to ALL employees, and not just workers of companies with 50 or more employees (which is a major limitation of the Family and Medical Leave Act). By making the program individual based, it also means workers aren’t suddenly out of luck if they lose their job or change employers.
With more American women working while pregnant, and working later into pregnancies, it is beyond time for America to implement paid family leave. In addition to improving health outcomes for mothers and babies, funding parental leave would also address the gender pay gap, and allow fathers to take a more active roll.