Federal Employees News Digest

Paid family leave for feds passes in House inches closer to reality

Federal employee unions and other advocates are ramping up efforts to obtain paid family leave for the federal workforce—and a bill to achieve that goal this month has passed in the House of Representatives. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), passed in 1993, is in force but it provides feds and other government and private-sector employees only unpaid family leave. Advocates see this law’s protections as too limited and out-of-date, especially since many companies and governments—and government contractors—for years now have offered paid family leave. Advocates are encouraged by the bill’s recent passage—but even with some bipartisan backing and ample facts behind it, any such legislation faces tough odds versus today’s extremely volatile politics. The House bill—which is known as the Paid Family Leave Act of 2019 and which was passed as part of a needed Defense appropriations bill—proposes to give feds 12 weeks of paid family leave. But how might paid family leave be seen by a wider constituency as being important to improving the lives of feds and their families? And if it’s long been that crucial, why have many employers—including the federal government—been so slow to include it in compensation packages? This week, Nathan Abse interviews Jeffrey Wenger, an economist and labor specialist, as well as a senior policy researcher with RAND, about paid family leave at this crucial crossroads.

Q & A Jeffrey Wenger

Why is paid family leave such an important benefit for employees, including federal employees?

Wenger: This issue is somewhat nuanced. The politics of the issue and the economics of it are intertwined. Let’s start with one of the most important facts about why the issue might not get sustained attention, politically speaking. The period during which most parents need affordable, high-quality childcare is just for a relatively short period of time—when their kids are about zero to five years old. This is a very important fact, politically speaking. I mean, typically, later the kids go to school and might need some aftercare from five years of age onward. But the most intensive and expensive period is that zero- to five-year-old age group. Think about that. That’s a relatively small segment of a worker’s life, during their working years. It tends to be a relatively narrow time frame, or window, when help is needed. And it tends also to still to be a gendered situation—where women are in many instances expected to give most of the care (although that is changing and more men are more and more involved). But with only this short time frame at issue, many people simply scramble to make it work, but then later they don’t necessarily knuckle down to give sustained political action or attention to it. It’s over for them.

You noted the complicated politics and economics of the issue—can you talk economics here?

Wenger: Yes. The economics of it is this: this is expensive care to provide, for a zero- to five-year-old, at a time in the household where then is usually not a lot of money. Say, you are a young couple, just starting out and you just got married 2 or three years ago. In a traditional family, you might be a newly married couple, you’re relatively early in your career, and you don’t have much money for childcare. This is relatively expensive stuff, hiring childcare. Yet, it’s difficult to gain much political traction on the issue. Why? Because, again, a lot of people power through it, and then the phase is over. People tell their war stories about how they managed to get through it, looking back—but they’ve moved through that phase and it’s done. The [grassroots] political will to fight for this benefit is therefore often lacking—and so how many people will maintain sustained advocacy on this issue?

There are some really powerful actual benefits to families and society, from paid leave, right?

Wenger: Yes, definitely. But as a consequence of the short window needed by most families, as I said, you get less traction in politics on this. The facts on its benefits are clear. You can’t discount them. High quality care for children is shown in study after study to be very good for them, and families. Second, the evidence is right there that providing care, by paying someone, is very, very expensive for couples just starting out. That’s especially so for parents with kids in the zero- to one-year-old range. The number of caregivers relative to the number of kids is by necessity very high, you know? And so, paid family leave for that zero- to one-year-old child range is even more cost-effective—because in that age range you can only have like one or two—maybe three—kids for each of those caregivers, in many instances. It’s expensive if you’re a family trying to pay for it. So, offering paid family leave is a much better deal for everyone concerned, for most families. In the end, we are as a society paying for this, and we are just making the individual household bear the cost—but we are paying for this already. What paid family leave does is make a necessary thing a much better deal.

Why do many companies say the cost is too great? Is that true?

Wenger: Well, from a private company’s perspective, without some incentive or policy they are paying for it across every generation of all of their employees, in such a way that those costs don’t go away over time. Meanwhile from an individual family’s perspective, it’s very expensive for a limited time only—a very tough war story looking back but the family goes through it up to age five and it’s just about over, or rather it’s usually less expensive after that.

Can you clarify why society and taxpayers, or companies, shouldn’t balk at the expense?

Wenger: Well, we should remember that all of the costs of benefits will come out of wages that workers would otherwise earn, really. What I mean by that is, when we say that the “federal government will have to pay for this benefit,” employees will have the childcare paid for, but not really. Actually the employees would have to pay for it as it will come out of lower salaries over time. It’s iike, “I can offer you $50,000 salary and childcare and other benefits.” Or,as an employer, I can offer you $65,000 and no benefits.” It’s just how it works.

So, there is the objection that it’s too expensive for taxpayers, you say it’s a benefit that saves everyone overall? Some say it helps even more—by way of retaining employees, etc.?

Wenger: If the federal government adopts paid family leave for their employees, it will cost some money, of course. But there will be productivity enhancements. Employees won’t have to worry as much about their childcare provider, and will not have to take sick time away from work—and that will make them better able to do their job and more productive. Employees won’t have to fill vacant positions, go through all the searching and hiring and training. Avoiding these problems would save money.   

How can governments and companies offer paid leave, while avoiding reinforcing gender stereotypes?

Wenger:  In some countries, they’ve avoided this problem by requiring both parents to take the paid family leave in order to even be eligible. If we only subsidize the women to take it, because they are the only ones actually doing it, then things would get out of balance and you might generate a hiring preference for hiring men. You don’t want gendered effects. You don’t want to do that.

Why are we lagging behind many other developed countries in offering paid family leave?

Wenger: I don’t know the answer to that. We are behind in many other social benefits as well. It may be our sort of legacy of frontier culture—it’s hard to say. It may just not be in our DNA in that cultural sense. It is something to be dealt with, overcome.

How does the long-term and wider future look for this benefit, across society? Will younger, in - demand professionals and workers—with their requirements—insist more often on this benefit?

Wenger: There are interesting aspects to that question. One potentially interesting facet here is the extent to which people across the broader labor marketplace have access to family leave or paid family leave? I don’t know, and haven’t investigated specifically—and whether there is really good data on this—but for example some places have it better than others—and also some kinds of work have better benefits than others. These kinds of nonwage benefits are unequally distributed. For example, in terms of where you live, California we have unpaid family leave, and I think we have more generous family leave than in most places. Now in terms of the kind of work too, if you work for a company that’s filled with professionals with college degrees, and service economy or other high-value outputs, then you are probably more likely to have more access to paid family leave from the firm or employer. If you don’t, I think you’re likely to have much lowered access to these benefits. Much of the income inequality that we observe across the economy, well that kind of inequality is also there for these benefits too.

Doesn’t everyone need this benefit?

Wenger: Yes. Let’s be clear. Everyone should have the opportunity to spend time with and bond with their child, with their children, after they are born or adopted! It’s just reasonable. There is a biological necessity, and a child development necessity, here. That’s the minimum. It’s mind-numbing that we haven’t, and it’s a terrible additional problem for the less well-off, that’s even less is available to many—the inequality issue here is profound. For now, the FMLA provides only unpaid leave, and only for some in the economy. It’s a big problem. It’s not for lack of research that we haven’t got leave and paid leave in this country. It’s about the politics and the collective interests of those who have to pay for it. It’s a failure of imagination. We are currently going to pay over a trillion dollars over a lifetime to the wealthiest for this administration’s tax cut. Yet, it would be very easy to give corporations a tax cut to fund paid family leave for the first six months or a year after a child is born or adopted. Yet, it hasn’t happened.

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