The FAMILY Act is smart policy, not just smart politics

Sometimes it becomes abundantly clear that the time is right for a new policy. The need for it is obvious and widely acknowledged. It has been tested and shown to work well. And the majority of voters say they are ready for lawmakers to act. We’re at that point with paid family and medical leave in this country and, right on cue, the naysayers are emerging with their deceptive tactics and distortions. Wendy McElroy did just that on this blog over the weekend

McElroy’s target was the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act (S. 1810/H.R. 3712). Her post is, at best, misleading criticism of a common sense proposal that America’s working families want and urgently need. She relies on the same tired misrepresentations so often used by opponents of basic labor standards in this country. Like those before it, McElroy’s doomsday prediction will be proven false.  

{mosads}Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D–Conn.) introduced the FAMILY Act last December. The bill would establish a national paid family and medical leave insurance program that would enable workers to earn a portion of their wages for up to 12 weeks when they need to take time away from their jobs to recover from a serious health condition, including pregnancy and childbirth; welcome a new child; care for a seriously ill family member, including a service member injured in the line of duty; or address exigencies arising from a servicemember’s deployment. 

It is apparently of no consequence to McElroy that just 12 percent of the country’s private sector workforce has access to paid family leave through their employers, and less than 40 percent has paid medical leave through an employer-provided temporary disability insurance program. In fact, the United States is one of few nations in the world that do not guarantee paid leave, particularly for new mothers – and families suffer terribly as a result.

The FAMILY Act builds on the success of paid family leave insurance programs that have existed in California since 2004 and New Jersey since 2009. Rhode Island implemented a similar program earlier this year. Studies of these programs and similar policies adopted by employers demonstrate the widespread benefits of paid leave and challenge many of McElroy’s assumptions about the FAMILY Act.

Contrary to McElroy’s claims, the FAMILY Act would help – not hurt – small businesses. By spreading out and sharing the cost of providing leave, the FAMILY Act offers an affordable way for small businesses to provide the paid family and medical leave they understand is good for workers and their bottom lines. That is why more small businesses say they support a paid family and medical leave insurance program than oppose it, and why there is a growing list of small businesses calling for the FAMILY Act. 

Employers who already provide paid leave do so because they know it is cost effective, reduces turnover, and makes for a healthier and more loyal workforce. McElroy suggests that the FAMILY Act would punish these good employers by increasing their costs. On the contrary, enactment of the FAMILY Act would mean that employers that already do the right thing would be able to adjust their benefit structures, or build on the benefits provided by the FAMILY Act through additional wage replacement or more leave time. Regardless, they are likely to see cost savings because at least some of the leave they provide would be paid for through the new fund. 

McElroy also claims that the FAMILY Act would disproportionately harm women. Here, too, the opposite is true. The FAMILY Act’s approach makes it less likely that businesses would avoid hiring women. Cost is spread out among all employers and employees, and both women and men would have access to the same amount of leave for health and caregiving needs. Women are still primary caregivers for their families, and they are integral to the nation’s workplaces and economy. The FAMILY Act would help employers retain women and all workers, including the young and inexperienced, which will benefit businesses and our economy in the long run. 

There is absolutely no evidence to support McElroy’s claim that there will be widespread abuse of the program the FAMILY Act would create. Nothing of the sort has happened in the states with very similar programs. A survey of employers in California shows that only a very small share (less than 10 percent) report suspecting or knowing of workers who misuse the state’s paid family leave program, and the few that do report only isolated incidents. Similarly, interviews of a variety of New Jersey employers reveal no reports of abuse.

Finally, the costs of the status quo for America’s families, businesses and our economy far outweigh any concerns about the costs associated with the FAMILY Act. When workers don’t have access to paid leave, they and their families live one birth, accident or serious illness away from financial devastation – and the effects ripple throughout our communities and unnecessarily strain our economy. New parents who do not take paid leave are more likely to rely on food stamps and public assistance.

McElroy argues that lawmakers’ support for the FAMILY Act is about politics and securing women’s votes, rather than what is best for the American people and our economy. She is right that supporting the FAMILY Act is smart politics, but it’s because the FAMILY Act is smart policy that addresses the very real needs of America’s workers and their families. That’s why voters across demographic and party lines say they support the bill, and 58 percent say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who does too.

Lack of access to paid family and medical leave in this country is a serious issue, and it deserves serious attention from Congress. Baseless attacks on a reasonable proposal and those who support it only get in the way of the honest and productive conversations America’s working families need and deserve.

Shabo is vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Tags Kirsten Gillibrand

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