A Family-Leave Safety Net

From our pink-collar jobs package, Women's Work:

Unlike nearly every other developed nation, the U.S. government does not require that workers have access to paid leave from work for the birth of a child or to care for an ill family member. While some employers do the right thing and provide paid family leave to all their employees, most do not. Within a company, there may not even be a uniform policy.

What this means is it's the workers at the top who are most likely to get benefits like paid family and medical leave, making it more of a perk than a right. The Census Bureau reports that 60 percent of new mothers with a bachelor's degree or higher received paid maternity leave, compared to only 22 percent of those with less than a high school degree. Low-wage workers are the least likely to get paid time off, even though they are the most likely to need workplace flexibility since they cannot afford paid help to care for loved ones. While some low-wage workers qualify for unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), many cannot afford to take it--and many wind up quitting or getting fired as a result of personal or family obligations. Unions have made some progress in getting time-off policies and flexibility into union contracts, but with fewer than one in 10 private-sector workers in a union, this doesn't help many working-class families.

As the federal government is forced to bail out Wall Street with billions of dollars in order to keep credit flowing to American businesses and consumers, there have been calls for strings to be attached--such as limiting CEO pay and bonuses, tying pay to performance, and ensuring more transparency and accountability. But even these stipulations will have little direct impact on most working Americans. Why is it that the government can't use the bailout funds to demand these businesses offer better family-leave policies? Better yet, with populist outrage over Wall Street bailouts at a peak, it's time for progressives to propose tapping into the administrative efficiencies of existing federal programs--namely, Social Security--that could provide universal family-leave coverage. Making paid family and medical leave a reality for every worker, not just those at the very top of the wage ladder, will require some kind of social-insurance program--a bold step in these tough economic times. Social Security has the advantage of being an established and popular program that covers nearly every worker in the United States. Expanding it to encompass family and medical leave could be just the ticket to getting all families the time off that they need, while not having to resort to piecemeal solutions that only get us part of the way there.

For decades, policy-makers and advocates have been seeking a way to provide families with time off to care for their loved ones. While there have been some accomplishments, in the end, most workers remain without access to paid family and medical leave. To address the fact that few workers had even the right to unpaid family and medical leave, President Bill Clinton signed the FMLA in 1993. This legislation gave approximately 44 million workers (out of a total work force of more than 128 million) the right to job-protected unpaid leave to care for a new child, a sick family member, or to recover from an illness. It was the first national legislation that granted any worker the right to time off to provide care. It was hailed--and rightly so--as a major success for working families.

While the passage of the FMLA was a serious step forward, it continued to define a deserving employee as one who fits a traditional model of employment, with a full-time and consistent work history. To take FMLA leave, an employee must work at a large company (50 or more employees), work more than part-time (putting in at least 1,250 hours per year), and be a steady employee (working with that particular company for at least a year, although not necessarily without interruption). Overall, these exclusions limited the program's usefulness for much of the working class.

The FMLA does not capture the realities of the modern work force. The minimum-hours rule leaves out many part-time workers who might be working low hours in order to address caregiving--the very workers most in need of leave. Further, many part-time workers have more than one job, and tying the FMLA to hours with a single employer limits these workers' eligibility. Excluding employees who have been with a particular company for less than a year leaves out many young parents--a significant share of those who need this kind of leave. Among workers aged 18 to 25, 43.3 percent of women and 31.2 percent of men with a small child at home have held their job for less than a year and thus are ineligible for FMLA. For low- and moderate-income families, taking unpaid leave is often not an economically viable option, making the right to job-protected leave nice in theory but irrelevant in practice.

What we need is a social-insurance program that provides paid family and medical leave to every worker, young and old, part-time and full-time, regardless of whether they work in a large or small company. What we have is a program that was a giant leap forward over a decade ago but one that fell far short of what workers really needed then and now.

The problem is not that advocates and policy-makers who "get" this issue aren't trying hard enough to enact new federal family-leave policies. It's that employers continue to insist that the right to paid time off should be at their sole discretion. Companies have waged relentless campaigns to claim that providing paid time off for workers to care for a new child or an ailing parent could ruin them financially, even though statistically very few workers have a new child or a serious illness in their family in any given year.

A handful of states have successfully overcome this business narrative and made progress toward creating inclusive policies ensuring paid family and medical leave. In 2002, California extended its Family Temporary Disability Insurance program to include family leave, offering six weeks of partial wage-replacement family leave to every worker in the state. New Jersey passed similar legislation last year. In 2007, Washington became the first state to pass legislation establishing a new, stand-alone program for paid parental leave (although the program is not yet implemented because the financing remains to be worked out). To encourage state-level efforts, Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California is set to introduce a bill that grants $1.5 billion to states to set up these kinds of family-leave programs.

These efforts have been making headway, but the pace has been slow. A state-by-state strategy forces advocates to deal with businesses that lobby local political leaders for loopholes that allow them to reduce the coverage in other ways. These carve-outs matter: The FMLA rules, for example, categorically exclude just less than a third of all workers because they work for businesses with less than 50 employees.

At the national level, Congress is considering legislation to provide paid family and medical leave. The Family Leave Insurance Act would do just that: establish a national family-leave insurance program. Like the FMLA, the insurance bill as introduced in the Senate in the previous Congress allows the exclusion of workers at small businesses and those who have been with their employer for less than a year.

As these bills move through Congress and state legislatures, the business lobby is increasingly vocal in its calls to "be reasonable" about carving out workers for whom providing leave would be a (supposed) burden to their employer. These kinds of compromises may seem reasonable on their face, but they disproportionately leave out low-wage, part-time, and young workers, and should not be on the table. There are many bills before Congress right now to address some of the workers left out of the FMLA, but each one will require a separate lift to get it passed. We need to think about a bold solution that will cover everyone--and provide workers with coverage when their family needs their care.

The overarching problem is that employers simply don't want to compromise--and no one's making them. The single-biggest hurdle to ensuring that families have sufficient paid time off is the argument that small businesses simply cannot afford it.

So let's take it out of their hands. Here's a radical, inclusive idea to give nearly every U.S. worker paid family and medical leave: allow workers to trade future Social Security benefits to pay for leaves covered by FMLA--to care for a new child, to care for a sick family member, or to recover from a serious illness--regardless of how small an employer is. Workers would be able to borrow from their Social Security to pay for family and medical leave as soon as they had logged a sufficient number of quarters of employment at any job, similar to eligibility for unemployment insurance.

In an era where very few families have someone at home to provide care for a new child or sick family member, time off from work--with pay--is a key missing element of our current social-insurance structure. We cover the other life events that leave someone unable to work--unemployment, retirement, and disability--but the current model was developed in the 1930s, during the last major U.S. economic crisis, when most families had a full-time, stay-at-home caretaker. Today, that is no longer the case. With most adults in the labor market, we need to insure them against income losses when they need time off to care for their families.

Of course, to be fully effective, FMLA's job protection must be extended to all workers. Allowing workers ineligible for FMLA to trade Social Security for pay during leaves to provide care may be a net improvement--some benefits are better than none--but it may lead to workers being fired (or fearing being fired) for taking leave.

Versions of this idea have been bubbling up for awhile. Workplace Flexibility 2010, a policy initiative at Georgetown Law School with support from Shelley Waters Boots at the Urban Institute, is looking at a range of financing mechanisms for extended time off--including Social Security. In addition, there has been some interesting writing on the topic from academics and policy wonks. While calls for a social-insurance scheme to cover family and medical leave have garnered some attention from policy-makers--Karen Kornbluh outlined an agenda for family-leave insurance when she was at the New America Foundation and then went on to become a senior adviser to Barack Obama--the idea of allowing workers to trade future weeks of retirement for family and medical leave has not been the focus.

The beauty of this idea is that it builds on a program that already has mass appeal, is broadly inclusive, and allows workers to voluntarily choose whether or not to use the program. We can extend Social Security's universalism to family and medical leave without adding to its problems. In fact, research shows that extending paid leave to new mothers increases their likelihood of returning to work--potentially increasing women's lifetime employment, adding tax revenue to the system overall, and helping women increase their retirement-benefit level.

We can structure the benefits in a variety of ways, but one thing is certain--this will not require a new tax on employers. This trade simply means a shift in benefits: for every day off during a worker's career, his or her retirement age is increased by a day. For the vast majority of workers, drawing on their Social Security when they have a child or need to care for themselves or others will entail retiring just a few months later than otherwise.

One clear advantage of this idea is that it could hinder the effectiveness of business opposition. Of course, business owners will scream that paying for leave with Social Security funds will still require them to hire more workers to cover "unexpected" leave problems, thus boosting their payroll costs. But, since this concept is based on workers trading their own funds, this message is likely to be less effective in swaying public opinion than plans that call for a new insurance structure with new taxes.

One of the wrenching realities about government policy-making over the past generation is that it has been nearly impossible to enact programs that benefit all workers, including low-wage workers. For too long, we've allowed employers to define what are "reasonable" policies and what aren't. And the working class gets thrown under the bus--often at the last minute--in the name of compromise. Paid family-leave policy is the place to draw the line. It's time to take what is now a benefit of the privileged and turn it into a right for all workers.

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