Paid Family Leave: A Benefit Helpful to Just About Everyone—So Why So Slow In Coming?
It’s only in the last few years that feds got 12 weeks of paid parental leave. Now, a pending bill aims to cover caregiving in case of illness.
You’ve heard it before: The U.S. is the only major developed country where workers lack guaranteed paid parental—or “family”—leave.
Or, to put a finer point on it, “The U.S. is the only OECD member country—and one of only six countries in the world—without a national paid parental leave policy,” as the Bipartisan Policy Center stated in a research brief on the subject last year.
That is, out of 38 of the richest countries, the U.S. stands alone—for the vast majority of employees—in mandating no national-level, paid parental leave of any kind.
That’s what we don’t have. So what do we have? In terms of federal law, there is a guarantee of the right to unpaid family leave. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) mandates that if you’re an employee at any company or organization—whether private-sector or public-sector—of 50 or more employees, it is illegal for that employer to fire you for taking up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave.
Still, that’s a far cry from the 37 other advanced countries, with their much more robust leave guarantees.
“It's a scandal that we don't have any kind of paid national family and medical leave program in the United States,” Sherry Leiwant, co-president of the paid leave advocacy group, A Better Balance, told Government Executive. “We're the only developed country that doesn't give families time to take care of each other when a new child joins the family or when somebody close is seriously ill. It is just so overdue.”
The 2019 passage of the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA) provides an important if limited federal-level exception to Leiwant’s grim rule. For feds, it modifies FMLA to provide 12 weeks of paid leave—aligning more closely with advanced countries on the issue. Trouble is, you can avail only under a narrow set of conditions: for a new child, whether by birth or adoption or foster care. Still, FEPLA’s paid leave is a significant improvement—and an important benefit.
“We heard a lot of stories from federal employees as we advocated for FEPLA several years ago,” Michelle McGrain, director of congressional relations for the National Partnership for Women and Families, told Government Executive. “All about how hard things had been—with feds getting by on taking leave without pay when they had to care for their parents, or to seek chemo treatments, and all sorts of other family needs.”
“That was unpaid leave. So in 2019 we were all really excited to get some paid parental leave for feds. But we knew the job's not done, and we're heartened to see legislation before Congress right now, to finish the job and convert federal employees with more family needs, beyond childcare, from using unpaid FMLA leave to paid leave.”
Major federal employee unions—including the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Treasury Employees Union and the National Federation of Federal Employees — are lauding efforts by the Biden administration and some in Congress to push for more paid leave.
But, with great respect for the successes to date of leading advocates for paid leave, why is something considered a basic right abroad so hard to secure—or, often, even to find mentioned in headlines—here, in the largest economy on Earth? We wanted to know.
So, with the pending Comprehensive Paid Family Leave Act bill (H.R. 856) pushing beyond FEPLA to cover caregiving in case of illness, along with the broader still FAMILY Act bill proposing to extend the benefit workforce-wide, we interviewed Jeffrey Wenger, a RAND economist, labor specialist, and senior policy researcher, about why paid leave has always faced such headwinds in the U.S., and his conclusions on the need to further enhance this benefit for feds as well as make it universal for all working families in America.
Q&A with RAND’s Jeffrey Wenger
Government Executive: With FEPLA, passed in 2019, feds now have up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. Since then, unions and advocates, armed with evidence of the benefits of more paid leave—and joined by analysts, including yourself—argue for more paid leave, and for a wider public. Why, in your opinion, is paid family leave—or any family leave—such a key benefit for our workforce and economy as a whole?
Wenger: Why? Because working people in our country need family leave for several obvious reasons. Working parents need to be enabled to properly take care of their young children. Later in life, adult children need time to take care of their parents, too. We all need to be able to do these things when we need to, while having the flexibility to keep and maintain our jobs. It’s just the facts of economic life nowadays: In most families most of the time, both parents work. So, taken together, a guarantee of adequate family leave and flexibility is necessary for working families to function. For the vast majority of people, we’re just not living in 1938, or 1952—or any other imaginary time when one adult is just automatically at home, or somehow we might not need family leave.
Government Executive: OK, so that’s the broadest reason why American workplace law needs an update, especially on family leave. But if so many hardworking, taxpaying, often professional people need it, why hasn’t family leave—and especially paid family leave—long since become bedrock federal law, due to the two-parent, two-job economics and politics you just laid out?
Wenger: Some of the reason is companies and governments considering only the expenses, but with estimates that don’t take into account the eventual benefits, the savings. But it’s also that young families are particularly vulnerable, politically speaking. It’s an often-overlooked reason why leave doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Most parents need good and affordable childcare only for a relatively short time—a few years. After five years old or so, most kids spend much more time in school, and by then many parents need less help. So many parents—even with two kids, say—just muddle through, despite their incurring horrible financial and job losses. For most parents it doesn’t seem to make sense to dig in or knuckle down to press for sustained political action or attention to push for paid family leave. They just endure the losses and move on. And without adequate political pressure and change, this cycle continues.
Government Executive: For feds, family leave options improved a few years ago with FEPLA, and this would obviously improve even more if H.R. 856 passes. As for the wider workforce, advocates look to the FAMILY Act to enact a national program for paid family leave. What is your take on these?
Wenger: So, those bills represent improvements in family leave and paid family leave. And the improvements in the law, especially paid leave for feds, so far already are very real. But, in recent years, the challenges involved in caring for young children have only gotten more acute. I’m of course talking about the pandemic’s impact. Think about young families with at least one preschool child, age one to five. We all know the early childhood developmental period is really important. But the pandemic has made the job for parents here more difficult. Many parents must be back at workplaces sometimes—but perhaps not at others. And when your kid gets sick, you can't take them to daycare. You have to take a sick day. All the more so since the pandemic. So, parents absolutely need flexibility and capacity to monitor and help their kids. Frankly, twelve weeks is a big help but it just isn't going to cover it. To do this right, there has to be a sea change in people's attitudes—and in our laws.
Government Executive: Right, and—for a while at least—many employees can't telework as much. Some agencies, like many companies, are demanding people return to the traditional workplace, right?
Wenger: Exactly. That’s another part of this problem, that some people can't telework as much. And, anyway, you can’t do that and deal with all of your kids’ needs at the same time. It’s all about the big picture of being pulled in multiple directions while somehow maintaining your hold on work. It’s tough.
Government Executive: OK. So, in addition to your two working parent situations there’s the pandemic demanding more flexibility. Why then isn’t paid family leave a straight-up bipartisan win? Is it projected costs? Disputed estimates paint paid leave, even for feds alone, as very expensive, but you and others spotlight lower turnover and training costs, bringing great savings, right?
Wenger: Right. I’ve noted before, if the federal government adopts paid family leave for their employees, on the one hand there will be costs. But, as in other countries, there will be significant savings, with productivity enhanced, with fewer people losing or leaving their jobs, with a reduced need to find and train new employees, and so on. We could have a much longer conversation about children, and women's role in the labor market. A lot of these issues have evolved quickly on the ground. But aspects of our laws and policies that pertain to parenting and caregiving haven't evolved to keep up with the reality. Not yet, anyway. It’s part of why adequate paid leave lags behind—and more is needed—here.
Government Executive: If in other developed countries employers and the wider economy arguably saves as much or more than the cost of proper leave, why do our leaders keep foot-dragging on this?
Wenger: I still don’t know the answer to that. We remain behind many other countries with respect to other benefits, too. Maybe it’s partly a remnant of history as a “frontier culture,” our core for many people. But it is something we need to overcome.
Government Executive: What is your bottom line on this issue?
Wenger: At some point in our lives, most of us are going to have caregiving responsibilities, whether it's for our children, or our parents or other family members—right? And so crafting reasonable leave and paid leave laws and policies—with costs and benefits taken into account, as other developed countries have done—has to be done. There are ways to do this that make sense, and that simply recognize this necessary truth: that our caregiving and other home responsibilities are very real, and we have to take them seriously and move forward with laws and policies that support adequate family leave.