We’ve spent the last month at Women AdvaNCe exploring why people of all professions would benefit from paid leave. From lawyers to home health workers, the needs we face as humans are universal. Nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted paid family and medical leave programs, but none of them fall in the southeastern United States. Also worth noting, none of them have been spearheaded by Republican leadership, although in Massachusetts the policy was put in place with a Republican Governor at the helm.
“It has increasingly become a nonpartisan issue, and in our minds it should never have been one (partisan). This is something that all lawmakers claim to care about the well-being of families and hard work,” said Vasu Ready, senior policy counsel for workplace programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families in an interview for this article.
Ready, who is expecting her first child, is part of an organization that is watching the development of paid leave programs closely nationwide, and monitoring the impact they have once enacted.
Her organization has not heard of any negative impact on businesses in the states that have put programs in place, largely because of their structure.
The National Partnership for Women & Families supports policies that involve a state-sponsored fund, that employers and employees pay into over the course of the year. It adds up to a couple of dollars a paycheck, and in most states covers employees and contract workers for small and large employers, provided they have worked a specified number of hours for that employer.
While opponents to mandated statewide or national paid leave policies express concerns over the demands on the private sector, Ready says that is not the case with the most commonly adopted models.
“Structurally the programs are designed as a social insurance program. The benefits are paid out of a publicly-run fund. It means that individual employers are not bearing the cost of paid leave,” she said.
Anecdotal evidence indicates employers also benefit from paid leave as it reduces employee turnover, and improves morale and productivity.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, eighty-seven percent of businesses in California, where a statewide paid leave program was recently implemented, incurred no additional costs. Nine-percent actually saw cost savings by reducing employee churn.
In its first 10 years, California’s program paid $4.6 billion in program benefits to 1.8 million claimants. That’s money that was reinvested in the economy, paid for by a shared pool of workers and employers, and not state funds. The support provided by those dollars improved infant and maternal health, reduced infant morbidity, increased paternal bonding, and reduced demand on nursing homes as people were able to care for sick loved ones. In states where paid leave does not exist, people who have no choice but to leave their employment due to illness of themselves or a loved one, often seek public assistance, which places a greater demand on state resources. California has shown this expense can often be avoided.
Andrea Levine worked as a successful freelance producer in Los Angeles before having her first child seven years ago. When a project wrapped while she was pregnant with her first child, she was able to receive unemployment benefits for the first year of her child’s life. While the benefits were unrelated to the state’s paid leave policy, the ability to maintain some income as her family adjusted to life with a child was priceless.
“It was very beneficial to us to transition to becoming a one paycheck family, while adding a person. I don’t know how we would have managed those first few months,” she said in an interview this week.
In addition, her wife was able to take a month leave from her job to adjust to life with each of their children.
In addition to the nine with existing policies, at least twenty states have introduced policies allowing for some variation of paid leave, though many remain stalled in committee or dead on arrival. That includes North Carolina as of this year.
Graig Meyer, State Representative for House District 50, proposed a paid leave policy in North Carolina this year. Proposed in April, it was referred to committee and that’s where it has stalled.
“It’s hard to understand why we don’t already have paid family leave insurance given its clear benefits to working people and its high level of public support,” Meyer said in a public statement on the policy on his website.
Anna Gassman-Pines is one of the authors of a Duke University report released this year, Paid Family Leave in North Carolina: An Analysis of Costs and Benefits. Among the findings of the report, paid family and medical leave in North Carolina increases labor force participation and employee retention, improves the health of mothers and infants.
She shared with me in an interview, “It would cost workers less than $5 a week to have access to paid leave so that if your mom breaks her hip, or you get a cancer diagnosis or have a new baby – you can still pay your bills.”
There are two paid leave proposals included in the Duke report, and depending on which one was implemented, Gassman-Pines’ research estimates between 200 and 300-thousand North Carolinians would apply and qualify for paid leave each calendar year. Imagine the economic impact and stability created when considering those same people currently are either choosing not to take care of family members or their own medical needs, or going without a paycheck.
Ready, while she advocates for the issue with the National Partnership for Women & Families, knows she is about the experience first hand the importance of the policies as she looks forward to the birth of her child. Living in D.C. and working for an employer that has this issue top of mind, she knows she’s among the fortunate ones.
With more than half of the country considering statewide paid leave policies or having passed them, I asked her what it takes to move the needle in a state like North Carolina.
Ready says, “It is really about people just reaching out to their legislatures and letting them know how important this issue is.”