Paid leave offers balance

April 17, 2000|By Steve Wisensale

THE UNITED STATES does not have a proud history with respect to family leave policy.

On the eve of World War II, it was one of only three industrialized countries that had not adopted any policy to address the needs of working families. It took four decades before the first family leave bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Colorado Democrat Patricia Schroeder and another eight years before it passed and was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. Between 1985 and 1993, about 27 states had adopted some version of a leave policy. The state bills and federal law had one thing in common: Leaves were unpaid.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, had a major role in engineering the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Often forgotten, though, is the bipartisan support the FMLA received during nearly eight years of debate. On the list of Republican supporters were New Jersey's Marge Roukema and Connecticut's Nancy Johnson and Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, then a congressman. Even conservative Republican Henry Hyde of Illinois, a staunch supporter of corporate America and a vocal pro-life advocate, voted for the bill. He was convinced its passage would reduce the number of abortions because women could have babies and job security.

In 1996, the bipartisan Commission on Leave found that 64 percent of those who said that they could not take leave cited financial problems as their primary reason.

By March 1 of this year, legislation had been introduced in 13 states, including Maryland, designed to provide some type of paid leave for workers to address personal health matters or family needs. Most of the proposals call for the use of temporary disability insurance (TDI) or unemployment insurance to replace wages.

Although Maryland's initiative failed during the most recent legislative session, other states are moving forward. Indiana's bill passed in its House and is now before the Senate. Connecticut's proposal was ushered out of the labor committee with a favorable vote and is moving toward a debate and vote in the General Assembly. Supporters of paid leave legislation are particularly optimistic in Vermont and Washington.

But even if few states are successful this year, lessons will be learned, modifications made and compromises offered before revised proposals are introduced next year.

Despite opposition, lawmakers in these states should continue to push for the legislation for several reasons.

First, this measure would help update the unemployment system to better fit the changing composition of the U.S. work force. When the unemployment insurance system was designed in the 1930s, the work force was mostly male, and women were at home raising children. Today, more than 80 percent of working women are in their childbearing years (ages 18 to 44), 65 percent of women in this group are employed, and nearly 50 percent of all mothers with children under the age of one year are working.

Second, contrary to what some may believe, using insurance funds to provide paid leave is not a revolutionary idea. Canada has used the model successfully since 1997, and Denmark has used it even longer. In the United States, since as early as the 1940s, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, California and Rhode Island have used temporary disability insurance to cover paid maternity leave. It is a policy that continues today with much success and few conflicts.

Third, the cost will be minimal. The University of Connecticut's Center for Economic Analysis found that depending on the model used to generate the estimate, such as the length of leave and the number of qualified workers, the cost per employee ranged from a low of $0.04 to a high of $1.45 per week, if Connecticut were to use the unemployment insurance option. This estimate coincides with similar studies completed in Vermont, Washington and Massachusetts and is also comparable to estimates that have been applied to TDI models. Even the maximum amount of $1.45 a week costs less than a small box of popcorn at a movie theater.

But cost studies can be confusing. More research is needed to establish consistency in methodologies used and how findings are reported. For example, while some states, such as Connecticut, estimate the increased cost of paid leave in terms of covered worker per week, others, such as Maryland, report cost estimates in the form of an annual lump sum increase. But the fact remains that the preliminary cost estimates in Massachusetts, Vermont, Washington, California, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut are minimal.

Finally, in sharp contrast to popular belief, the unemployment insurance program has been used to benefit workers who were not laid off. For example, workers have been permitted in some states to quit their jobs and collect unemployment insurance while they complete a training program.

The United States should move toward paid leave. At least 15 states have had sufficient resources to cut unemployment taxes in the past five years, and legislation to lower taxes is pending in many others. This can certainly be a win-win situation. Paid leave will help maintain worker attachment to the work force and benefit employers and employees. And, it will also benefit America's families at very little cost.

Steve Wisensale is an associate professor of public policy in the School of Family Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is a member of the Connecticut Task Force on Family and Medical Leave.

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