Presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang declared during Wednesday's presidential debate that the United States is the only country other than Papua New Guinea not to mandate paid family leave. Several of the Democratic contenders would like to change that, and most Americans seem to agree with them.

There was very little excitement at Wednesday's fifth Democratic presidential debate, but one interesting question did emerge. In response to a question about the high cost of infant daycare, Yang said that the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only two nations without paid maternity leave mandated by law. (The Family and Medical Leave Act mandates up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.)

That may not have been quite true, very strictly speaking. Yang himself has tweeted that the complement of countries with no paid family leave also includes Lesotho and Swaziland (recently renamed Eswatini). Still, Yang had made his point: The other countries without guaranteed paid family leave don't have much in the way of highways, either. "We've got to get off that list," he said.

Most Americans seem to want off the list. A 2017 Pew study found that 82 percent of Americans supported paid maternity leave, 69 percent supported paid paternity leave, and 67 percent supported paid leave to deal with a family member's serious medical condition. As always, though, the question is how to pay for it. In the Pew study, the majority of respondents thought employers should provide paid leave, but laws that have been proposed in Congress take different approaches. Some Republican senators have introduced laws that would pay for an individual's family leave by reducing or delaying his or her Social Security payments later on. New York senator and former presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand co-sponsored a law that would fund three months of paid leave with a 0.2 percent payroll tax on employers and employees, and several of the remaining Democratic candidates have pledged their support for that bill. They include Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, and South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Yang, who's running on a universal basic income platform, favors lump sum payments of $2,000 to help families with new babies or medical crises, while California senator Kamala Harris is in favor of six months of paid family leave. When a debate moderator asked how she envisioned paying for six months of leave, Harris responded instead that it was a necessary benefit for working mothers in today's world.

Six months of paid leave may sound like a crazy idea in the workaholic world of the United States where people don't even take the vacations they're entitled to. But, in fact, it's the norm in much of the developed world. And research seems to suggest that six months of paid leave strikes a close to ideal balance, allowing a parent the time he or she needs with a new baby without staying away from the job so long that it derails that parent's career. 

Most Americans don't get paid leave

Whether it's six months or three months, paid family leave would make a huge difference for millions of parents and people with family members who have medical needs. People in the world of highly paid professionals and executives tend to assume that paid family leave is common, even if it isn't mandated by law. But that's not the case everywhere. Six states--California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia--mandate paid family leave. Still, the vast majority of Americans don't have access to paid leave. A 2016 Pew study showed that only 14 percent of civilian workers had paid family leave available. 

Not surprisingly, employees in the highly paid technology, insurance, finance, and professional industries were likeliest to get paid family leave. But even in those professions more than half of workers did not. And only 9 percent of companies with fewer than 100 employees offered paid family leave, which suggests that a law mandating paid leave would affect small businesses more than most.

Whether you think that's a good thing might depend on your point of view. Some small-business owners might welcome the opportunity to provide a much-needed benefit that would also allow them to better compete for talent with larger, wealthier employers. Others might argue that even an additional 0.2 percent tax is too much of a strain on their finances. 

Either way, it seems highly possible that some form of mandated family leave will become law in more states, or perhaps nationwide, sometime in the future. That would give new parents more time and breathing room to settle in with their babies. And it would finally get us off that list.

Published on: Nov 21, 2019
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