Spotlight Exclusives

What Does the Future Hold for Paid Leave?

Aparna Mathur, American Enterprise Institute. Aparna Mathur, American Enterprise Institute., posted on

Paid family and medical leave has emerged as an important priority at the state and national level for many politicians, experts, and advocates. And, at a time of intense polarization, it is also a rare issue drawing interest from both ends of the political spectrum. Spotlight spoke with Aparna Mathur, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and codirector of the AEI-Brookings Project on Paid Family and Medical Leave, about the importance of the issue and what she expects to see moving forward. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why do you see paid leave as such an important issue?

The increase in labor force participation among women is a big part of this. There is no longer one breadwinner in a household; now there are more and more families where both of the heads are in the labor force. People are constantly being put into positions where they have to make difficult choices balancing family and work.

Paid leave also boosts income in the long-run and attaches women to the labor market in a way they were not before. That is why conservatives are supportive of this issue; you want more people working and attached to the labor force, less people relying on social welfare, and you want to preserve family bonding and allow parents time spend time with a newborn or give elders the attention they need. I see it as an economic and a family issue and both of these things should be appealing to conservatives.

Where do conservative proponents and liberals see eye-to-eye on this and where are there strong areas of disagreement?

There is a general understanding that people need leave to meet their caregiving needs. The biggest sticking point is how do we pay for it? Republicans do not like mandates – specifically those telling the businesses that they have to cover the costs of leave. You can argue that is it great for businesses and they should be doing it, but at the same time, there is a cost. We worry about whether this can lead to discrimination against women who are of child-bearing age.

I believe the explicit cost should be imposed on the employee; this is an earned benefit that the employee gets where they contribute an amount from their payroll into an account that they can access if they have a baby. The employers are already feeling the cost when the person leaves, when they have to hire and train someone new for a temporary position. I think it’s important to make sure this is done in the right way

You head up the AEI/Brookings project on this. Tell us a bit about that work and what’s to come in the year ahead?

At the end of last year, we came out with a new report on paid family leave and medical leave. While much of the conversation is around paid parental leave, there is a lot more work to be done on these other topics.

In a previous report from the first year of this work, we came up with a plan for eight weeks of paid family leave funded through employee contributions, but it was much harder to translate that to medical and family care leave.

In this report, we came up with a plan for medical leave funded through a temporary national disability program. However, we couldn’t come to consensus on paid family care leave.

Our plan now is to develop more research on these topics. We understand that people need leave to meet caregiving needs, and through policy papers we hope to provide more information and data that can inform the public discussion. We are planning to hold conferences where we disseminate the research and findings and make sure this is getting out to the public.

What is the prospect for action at the federal level? Is there any hope of congressional action in the near-future?

It’s encouraging that coming out of the midterms you have many candidates, and specifically women, that are coming into office with platforms that include paid leave.

This is an issue that has bipartisan support; if Democrats and Republicans can come together and compromise on the details of what they want, bipartisan legislation is possible. There is a need to get a federal policy and we need to have both sides engaging with one another. Yes, you see differences in funding and how it looks, but there is room for consensus.

What actions are states taking to address this issue? It seems like there’s reason for optimism on that front in particular.

It’s amazing the amount of action at the state level that we are seeing. Until recently we had only three states, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, with any kind of paid leave policy. Now Washington, D.C., Washington State, and New York have programs in place and Massachusetts passed legislation that will take effect in 2021. Indiana, Oregon, Connecticut; there are so many states that are talking about what paid leave looks like.

I expect over the next two to three years there will be more a lot more action on the state level. Private companies are also implementing a lot of new paid leave programs, and this may be partially a reaction to what states are doing.

We have moved beyond the question of “Should we do this” and instead are asking “How do we do this?” That is a fundamental shift that we have seen in the last few years and suggests that this is not an issue that will go away.

Aparna Mathur is a resident scholar in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

She directs the AEI-Brookings Project on Paid Family and Medical Leave. A full list of members is included below:

  • Aparna Mathur, codirector
  • Isabel V. Sawhill, codirector
  • Heather Boushey
  • Ben Gitis
  • Sarah Jane Glynn
  • Jeffrey Hayes
  • Douglas Holtz-Eakin
  • Harry J. Holzer
  • Elisabeth Jacobs
  • Abby M. McCloskey
  • Ruth Milkman
  • Angela Rachidi
  • Richard V. Reeves
  • Maya Rossin-Slater
  • Christopher J. Ruhm
  • Betsey Stevenson
  • Jane Waldfogel

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