Last year, the country’s smallest state took a step towards helping the United States address a hole in its workplace policies: lack of paid family leave. Since January 2014, employees in Rhode Island have been able to take up to four weeks of paid leave to bond with a newborn, newly adopted, or foster child, or to care for an ill loved one through the state’s Temporary Caregiver Insurance. TCI is fully funded by workers and applies to all employees regardless of the size of their workplace. Employers cannot fire or retaliate against employees who take the time off.
The United States lags far behind other advanced industrial nations in providing paid leave to new mothers and fathers. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents employed by certain kinds of businesses. Even among those covered, most can’t afford unpaid time off. In the more than 20 years since passage of the FMLA, only a tiny fraction of new fathers have used it. That’s because going without a father’s income — for even a few weeks — is a financial hardship for most families. Moreover, being a good father has traditionally meant providing for your family by working.
By the time FMLA became federal law in 1993, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, along with other states, already had state laws guaranteeing unpaid leave. Now Rhode Island, California, and New Jersey have broken new ground with paid family leave laws, and legislatures in Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Colorado, Minnesota, Washington, and Hawaii are all considering similar programs. Steps in the right direction are also occurring on the municipal level, with leadership from mayors and city councilors — like those in Boston — who are supporting paid parental leave for municipal employees. In fact, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey just said she plans to offer six weeks of paid parental leave to her employees.
It is not surprising that states and municipalities are taking action. Research shows paternity leave is not just good for fathers; it’s good for all of us. Studies find that fathers who take longer leaves have more involvement in the lives of their children, have more confidence as parents, and spend more hours with their children during workdays. Moreover, research has shown that longer paid paternity leave increases fathers’ involvement in the lives of their children and the time they spend caring for them. Greater gender equity in the home enhances mothers’ attachment to the workforce and success on the job.
While paid leave has increased the number of men in California and New Jersey taking time to care for a new baby, first-year data from Rhode Island are particularly encouraging. Paid, job-protected time off appears to encourage more men to take paternity leave. Nationally, just one man took leave following the birth of a child for every nine women who took such leave. By contrast, in Rhode Island, 901 men and 1,946 women went out on bonding leave in 2014 – a ratio of one father for every two mothers who took leave.
The burden on employers is less than you might think. Only a small fraction of the workforce has a baby in any given year. In Rhode Island, just 0.7 percent of the state’s private sector workforce took a bonding leave in 2014. Indeed, overall TCI usage for all purposes was just 0.92 percent of the workforce.
Barely any employers have had even one employee take leave. According to unpublished data from Rhode Island’s Department of Labor and Training, just 5 percent of the state’s 32,200 private sector employers had an employee who took a caregiver leave for any reason in 2014. A small number of larger employers had multiple caregiving leaves, but even in these cases, they were taken only by between 1 and 4 percent of the workforce.
In addition, research shows paid family leave reduces employee turnover, which provides a cost savings to employers compared with the expense of recruiting, training, and getting a new employee up to speed on a job.
As the state senator who championed Rhode Island’s Temporary Caregiver Insurance and an economist who studies the impact of paid leave, we know that the insurance programs in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island help families and our overall economy. Nearly 40 million people live in these three states, yet millions more across our country would benefit from paid family leave. Ensuring that workers who need to care for their loved ones can take time without losing their income is a basic guarantee that everyone deserves.
Eileen Appelbaum is senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and coauthor of “Unfinished Business: Paid Family Leave in California and the Future of Work-Family Policy.” Gayle Goldin is a Rhode Island state senator who in 2013 championed passage of Temporary Caregiver Insurance.