Paid leave will be a hot issue in the 2016 campaign

The U.S. is the only advanced country without a paid leave policy, enabling workers to take time off to care for a new baby or other family member. At least two Presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio, have been talking about it, making it likely that it will get attention in 2016.

The idea has broad appeal now that most two-parent families and almost all one-parent families struggle with balancing work and family. Polls show that it is favored by 81 percent of the public—94 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Independents and 65 percent of Republicans. Three states, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, have each enacted policies that could become models for other states or for the nation.

Paid leave promotes inclusive growth

Overall, paid leave is good for workers, good for children, and possibly even good for employers because of its role in helping to retain workers. It is also a policy that encourages inclusive growth. Studies of European systems suggest that paid leave increases female labor force participation and that the lack of it in the U.S. may be one reason for the decline in female labor force participation since 2000 and the growing female participation gap between the U.S. and other countries, adversely affecting our absolute and relative growth. The policy would make growth more inclusive because it would disproportionately benefit lower-wage workers.

The devil is in the design

The major issues in designing a paid leave policy are:

  1. Eligibility, and especially the extent of work experience required to qualify (often a year);
  2. the amount of leave allowed (Clinton suggests three months; Rubio four weeks);
  3. the wage replacement rate (often two-thirds of regular wages up to a cap), and
  4. financing.

Legislation proposed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) calls for a 0.2 percent payroll tax on employers and employees. Most states have made paid leave a part of their temporary disability systems. Senator Rubio proposes to finance it through a new tax credit for employers. 

Getting it right on eligibility, length of leave, and size of benefit

My own view is that a significant period of work experience should be required for eligibility to encourage stable employment before the birth of a child. This would not only encourage work but also insure that the subsidy was an earned benefit and not welfare by another name (but see below on financing).   

Leave periods need to be long enough to enable parents to bond with a child during the child’s first year of life but not so long that they lead to skill depreciation and to parents dropping out of the labor force. Three months seems like a good first step although it is far less generous than what many European countries provide (an average of 14 months across the OECD). That said, the Europeans may have gone too far. While there is little evidence that a leave as long as 6 months would have adverse effects on employment, when Canada extended their leave from six months to a year, the proportion of women returning to work declined.

A replacement rate of two-thirds up to a cap also seems reasonable although a higher replacement rate is one way to encourage more parents to take the leave. Among other things, more generous policies would have positive effects on the health and well-being of children. They might also encourage more fathers to take leave.  

How to pay for it

On financing, social insurance is the appropriate way to share the putative burden between employers and employees and avoid the stigma and unpopularity of social welfare. It would, in essence, change the default for employees (who are otherwise unlikely to save for purposes of taking leave). Some may worry that imposing any new costs on employers will lead to fewer employment opportunities. However, many economists believe that the employer portion of the tax is largely borne by workers in the form of lower wages. Moreover, in a study of 253 employers in California, over 90 percent reported either positive or no negative effects on profitability, turnover, and employee morale. Reductions in turnover, in particular, are noteworthy since turnover is a major expense for most employers. 

Will paid leave cause discrimination against women?

Another worry is discrimination against women. Here there is some cause for concern unless efforts are made to insure that leave is equally available to, and also used by, both men and women. This concern has led some countries to establish a use-it-or-lose-it set aside for fathers. In the province of Quebec, the proportion of fathers taking leave after implementation of such a policy increased from 21 to 75 percent and even after the leave period was over, men continued to share more equally in the care of their children.

Will Congress enact a national paid leave policy in the next few years? That’s doubtful in our current political environment but states may continue to take the lead. In the meantime, it can’t hurt if the major candidates are talking about the issue on the campaign trail.