Yesterday, on Mother’s Day, most moms I know just wanted a chance to sleep in. Now that they are rested and back to the grind, many moms (and prospective moms) are focused on a bigger issue: paid family leave.
By large margins, women of all political stripes view paid maternity leave as an important issue. And research recently conducted for Independent Women’s Forum by Hearts and Minds reveals that a bipartisan 73 percent of Americans “strongly or somewhat” support a federal paid leave policy.
Currently, the United States is the only the industrialized country that provides no cash benefits of any kind to women during maternity leave. Although a majority of women who work in the private sector are able to cobble together paid leave time using vacation or sick days, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that just 13 percent of private-industry employees have access to formal paid family leave. And while the 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid time off to care for a new child or a seriously ill family member, or recover from a serious illness, many eligible employees do not take advantage of this benefit because they simply cannot afford it.
Despite the broad consensus in favor of paid leave, however, many Americans remain rightly skeptical of expanding the role of the federal government and raising taxes to pay for new programs. Others worry that that federally mandated paid leave would discourage businesses from providing their own paid leave benefits.
Fully 78 percent of respondents in the Hearts and Mind survey agreed that workers “should have as much control and flexibility as possible over the benefits and money they have earned.” And nearly two-thirds said that they think it is important that any federal leave plan be fiscally responsible and “not increase the total amount of money the government spends” or “increase the financial burden on those who do not need the benefit.”
Unfortunately, that is exactly what the FAMILY Act, sponsored by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, would do. Gillibrand’s plan would tax all workers to pay for government leave benefits for those who are eligible. Five states, including Massachusetts, as well as the District of Columbia, have passed similar tax increases to fund government family leave policies. This year, Massachusetts workers will feel the pinch of a new family leave payroll tax. The Massachusetts leave benefits becomes available in 2021.
By contrast, a bill sponsored by Republican Senators Marco Rubio of Florida as well as one introduced by Republican Senators Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah would give workers paid leave to care for a child without further taxing workers or burdening businesses. These proposals allow new parents to take some of their Social Security retirement benefits early in order to stay home for a time after the birth or adoption of a child. Parents could trade approximately three months of Social Security benefits at the end of their working lives for two months of parental leave payments.
The Republican “earned leave” plans have the advantage of being budget-neutral. (Studies by the Social Security Administration indicate that voluntary parental leave benefits can be incorporated into Social Security without impacting its long-term financial health.) And because they are voluntary, the costs are paid only by those who access the benefits.
There are, of course, trade-offs for those who choose to access their benefits early. But many families would gladly sacrifice some money later in life (when they have had a lifetime to save and are no longer supporting children) for income at a time in life when finances are less stable and there are additional mouths to feed.These policies would help working parents without expanding government or penalizing childless workers.
This spring, let’s make good on our Mother’s Day tributes by giving mothers what they really want: paid time off with a new child.
Jennifer C. Braceras, a former labor and employment attorney, is a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum.