Spotlight Exclusives

Unmet Need For Paid Leave Persists, Even After COVID Benefits

Angela Rachidi Angela Rachidi, posted on

Paid leave is another of the key issues that has been highlighted during the pandemic. Angela Rachidi, senior fellow and Rowe scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has been following the issue for years and has been part of an AEI/Brookings Institution working group trying to find bipartisan approaches on paid family and medical leave policies. Rachidi has compiled new data on paid leave usage during the pandemic and she spoke with Spotlight about that recently, as well as the climate for bipartisan compromise on paid leave on Capitol Hill. The conversation has been lightly edited for content and length.

We haven’t spoken with you since you’ve updated your paid leave data. The latest figures show a lot more people have used it during the pandemic but there’s still a huge unmet need, correct?

Exactly. It’s kind of like any major public policy issue in that it’s hard to draw any hard and fast conclusion even though we all like to do that. The results of the survey certainly show that leave-taking, with employers giving pay for most of it, increased a great deal as well as unmet need. Clearly, there was a huge increase in the need for leave overall, which isn’t surprising given that we’re in a pandemic, and we were in the depths of the pandemic when we did the survey. The mixed story is that the system that was in place met the needs of a lot of workers but there were still some who didn’t have that need met.

The other thing that was interesting was that just over half of those who indicated they had an unmet need for leave actually took leave and much of that was paid. So, this again shows that people had just a lot of need for leave and much of it was met, but some of it was not met.

Do you have plans to update this or go back into the field this year?

We do. We’re going to do the third and likely final wave in September. We planned September because school will be back in session and hopefully much of it in person. We had hoped we would be in a better place in terms of COVID and treat it more like a post-pandemic period, but it looks like that’s not going to happen. Things are obviously still better than they were in last February when we launched the last wave, but things are not going to be as much improved as we had hoped.

Do you have a sense, even anecdotally, whether this experience will lead to more voluntary use of paid leave? Firms that may have added policies during the pandemic who may then make them permanent?

I do remember seeing a survey of establishments and the results were that a lot of establishments would go back to their pre-pandemic benefit offerings, which I found kind of interesting because I think that is a big question—would businesses realize that their employees had a need that was not being met and make it permanent policy?

And where do you see this issue now on Capitol Hill given all the conversations that are going on about an array of new benefits? It doesn’t seem like paid leave is a big part of that conversation.

No, it doesn’t and from my perspective, it seems like it’s less of a priority among Democrats, only because they did put out a very ambitious plan around paid leave but there was no real attempt to find ways to pay for it or even suggest where the money would come in the long term. And that suggested to me that it really wasn’t a very serious effort to enact something like this. I think in terms of rhetoric it may seem a priority, as it’s part of their larger American Family Plan, but there wasn’t a lot of meat behind the paid leave proposal in terms of how it was going to happen. There was no concrete proposal that said we’re going to use a payroll tax, or we’re going to use general revenues, or whatever it might be. It seemed more about showing support for a policy but not really doing the hard work of getting a policy in place.

Is there still the possibility of putting together a bipartisan coalition around a compromise paid leave proposal?

I just don’t know. On the Republican side, they have been addressing this issue. The House Republicans just came out with a discussion paper on child care and paid leave and they have a number of proposals on how to expand paid leave for workers and to expand the ability of employers to provide it. I thought they had some innovative ideas; things like using the child care subsidy program for wage replacement when workers have a new child in the household. It was not a Family Act type proposal but it was an effort by Republicans to address this issue with other policy proposals.

With that, I just don’t see Republicans coming to a Family Act style compromise and I don’t see Democrats coming to a proposal like the Republicans are putting out. The two sides are so far apart that I just don’t know how you come to a compromise. And they’re so far apart because they are radically different policy approaches: one is a social insurance model where the government is completely taking overpaid leave and the other is really getting government largely out of it and trying to make it easier for businesses to provide it or targeting benefits to specific populations. It’s two totally different approaches that aren’t really complements of each other; it’s a little bit one or the other. That doesn’t give me a whole lot of hope.

But at the same time, over the past 16 months, we’ve never seen a clearer demonstration of the need.

Right. I think there’s still disagreement about the level of need and the role for government and that’s where I don’t see either side compromising a whole lot, and that’s what you would need. It would require coming together and adjusting one’s priors on each side and I’m not hopeful that will happen, at least in the short term.

Are you seeing any interesting bipartisan proposals at the state level?

It does seem like there’s more possibility for paid leave policies in states and even some Republican-led states, but there’s just so much going on right now. I almost wonder when states do finally get over the hump of the pandemic and have a chance to take stock of what has happened and what the needs are, they may come up with some serious efforts. I would think both paid leave and child care will get another look at the state level.

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