New Study Shows It’s Time to Invest in Paid Leave for U.S. Workers and Families

| May 4, 2012

It is no secret that millions of women are both breadwinners and caregivers for their families, the country is rebuilding its economy, and – at the same time – many federal and state lawmakers are trying to figure out how to reduce spending. That’s why it couldn’t be timelier that a new study from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey’s Center for Women and Work, reveals the power that public policies can play in helping families when they need it most, while benefitting businesses and our economy.

The report, Policy Matters: Public Policy, Paid Leave for New Parents, and Economic Security for U.S. Workers, was commissioned by the National Partnership with generous funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. It is the first study to quantify the role that public policies play in enabling new parents to take leave when a child arrives. It shows, quite strikingly, what we have long suspected: New parents are more likely to take leave in connection with the birth of a child when they live in a state where public policies provide access to paid leave; at the same time, access to paid leave through paid leave insurance programs helps reduce workers’ dependence on government assistance.

According to the report, women who live in states that have some kind of paid leave program – either through temporary disability insurance or paid family leave insurance – are twice as likely to take paid leave following the birth of a child than women in states without these policies. In California, where a paid family leave program has provided paid leave to new parents and family caregivers since 2004, both women and men are more likely to take paid leave following the birth of a child than women and men in other states.

These findings may seem obvious but, when combined with other research results, the impact is considerable. We know from prior research that when workers are able to take paid leave, it leads to positive outcomes for their families, businesses and the economy. Paid leave enables new parents to take the time they need for their health and the health and development of their children while strengthening new mothers’ attachment to the labor force and their post-birth earnings. Paid leave also increases worker loyalty and decreases turnover. And, as this study and a prior Rutgers study show, when mothers take a short paid leave following the birth of a child and then return to work, they are less likely than mothers who keep working do not take leave to rely on public assistance and food stamps the year after birth. At a time when state budgets are stretched thin, giving workers access to paid leave offers clear savings for governments and taxpayers.

But in order to realize these benefits, workers must have access to paid leave. Unfortunately, workers in only a handful of states have a guarantee of paid leave in connection with childbirth; only about half of new mothers can take any form of paid leave to recover from childbirth and care for a new child; and only about one-tenth of workers have access to paid family leave through their employers to bond with their babies. That’s why this study is so important. It shows that the positive outcomes of paid leave could be experienced on a much larger scale, by more families, businesses and our economy, if policymakers made access to paid family and medical leave more universal. The study even shows the role that public policies can have in shaping culture by making it more acceptable for workers to take the time they need.

Policy Matters makes a strong case for public policies that improve access to paid leave. Fortunately, lawmakers and leaders are beginning to recognize the benefits and power of adopting such policies.

The Obama administration, for example, has proposed a state paid leave fund that would award competitive grants to states interested in establishing paid family and medical leave programs. The fund would foster state innovation, and could spur the enactment of more state paid leave programs and increase workers’ access to paid leave. It would be a great step forward for the country but still only a start.

What the country really needs is a national standard to ensure that all workers have access to paid leave, no matter where they live. And that’s why we are so pleased that key members of Congress are working on a proposal to create a national paid leave insurance program. This would be a powerful, lasting way to increase access to and use of paid leave for working families – and the nation would benefit in many ways.

This study and others like it make a compelling case to establish a national paid leave program for parents and other family caregivers. It should be a priority now. It’s time for lawmakers to take note and take action on common sense policies that will help families, businesses and our economy.