How to Love Paid Family Leave

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By Lauren Sandler,

from Bloomberg Businessweek,

There are two Democratic women pushing paid leave in Congress. A framed onesie that says “NY ♥ the FAMILY act” greets visitors to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office on the Hill. With Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, Gillibrand in December introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or Family Act. The bill extends paid leave to care for a newborn or seriously ill relative. Seated under her children’s artwork taped to the wall of her office, Gillibrand says she sees paid leave as a basic right. To her, however, this is a mother’s issue, and it’s the cornerstone of her women’s economic empowerment initiative.

In our conversation, Gillibrand spoke in terms of mothers as “primary” caregivers and fathers as “secondary” ones.

Beyond Washington, evidence that paid leave is good for both business and employees continues to accumulate. California has a decade to reflect upon; New Jersey has had five years; and in 2013 Rhode Island became the third state to mandate paid leave. In a 2011 survey of 250 California businesses by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 87 percent thought offering paid leave had no negative effect on costs. In fact, 9 percent said it reduced costs.

Sharon Lerner, a senior fellow at the public policy organization Demos, has spent the past year interviewing a diverse sample of New Jersey employers about the effect of paid leave. Those who admitted they’d feared being deluged by workers abusing the policy said they’d learned such fears were unfounded. None of the employers in the survey reported that paid leave had negatively affected their company’s productivity, profitability, or turnover, and some reported improved morale. In the California poll by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 99 percent of the companies surveyed found that offering paid leave raised morale, and 93 percent found that it reduced turnover.

At the moment, only four senators have signed on to support the bill—Cory Booker of New Jersey, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, and Hawaii’s two senators Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, all Democrats—though Gillibrand says more support is to come. Her explanation for the lack of endorsement is simple: This is a women’s issue, and the Hill is dominated by men who don’t get it.

Political leaders in the U.S. have been cautious at best when considering the viability of policies the rest of the world takes for granted. When asked recently if it was time to mandate paid leave, Hillary Clinton replied, “eventually.” But the Obama administration is embracing the cause.

To make that change, we need to reframe the conversation to include the fact that better policy is not just what’s good for mothers. It’s what’s good for business. It’s what’s good for all of us. And by maintaining our place as the only developed country to position our family needs against our business needs, we’re selling out both.

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