In Washington, Republicans and Democrats mingle. I have a good friend – we’ll call her Sarah – who I adore, but who is solidly on the Left. For years she’s worked overseas, traveling the world widely – making her way through both cosmopolitan capitals and third world hovels – focusing on human rights and international development. She’s educated, industrious, and cultured. And only recently married.
Like so many young women, Sarah was originally excited about the prospect of President Obama; but over the years she has grown increasingly disillusioned as the economy has staggered, the costs of ObamaCare have become a reality, and partisan strife in Washington has reached new heights.
Tonight when the President gives his State of the Union address to the country, he’s going to be talking particularly to Sarah and her other liberal–leaning friends about his newly proposed Healthy Families Act, a plan to mandate certain businesses with more than 15 employees allow workers to accrue up to 7 days of paid sick time. He will make it sound like gold at the end of the rainbow – the ultimate defense against employers who only allow workers to make use of unpaid leave mandated under the existing Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Sarah knows this is an issue of great importance to me. She knows I have three young children and a father with Alzheimer’s whose rapidly declining health means I’m often trying to get away from work to see him. So when I tell Sarah I don’t support the HFA and that she should be skeptical when the president presents it tonight, I hope she’ll take my perspective seriously, and not as knee-jerk, anti-Obama rhetoric.
While a guaranteed paid leave benefit certainly sounds nice, there are no “free” benefits. Like ObamaCare or raising the minimum wage, there are serious unintended consequences that come with government-mandated leave policies that are likely to hurt Sarah and her friends.
The first thing I want Sarah to realize is that the problem of not having access to paid leave is much smaller than Democrats would have her believe. In 2007 the Department of Labor found that 82 percent of workers had access to some paid leave time. Nearly 70 percent of full-time workers have access specifically to paid sick leave, and even 20 percent of part-time workers do too. So Sarah, who just had a baby and is certainly already thinking about the days when her daughter will need to stay home from school, can take comfort that the problem is not quite as dire as she might fear.
Currently, Sarah's top priority is that she and her husband have well-paying jobs so they can buy a home for their growing family and have more choices when it comes time to send their daughter to school. But if the Healthy Family Act passes, it’s likely going to be Sarah and her husband who pay the price. As she recently told me, many of her friends don’t want to work for large corporate entities that could perhaps easily absorb the costs of the proposed mandate. Like Sarah, they’re eager to work for smaller start-ups where they feel like they can make more of a difference. The problem is that these smaller companies are going to have a much harder time adapting to a new mandate like the HFA. They will, in effect, have an incentive to keep their workforce small, consolidate or outsource jobs, and reduce salaries to manage the costs of the HFA.
Still Sarah might still think the Healthy Families Act is worth it – a modest proposal in the big scheme of things that will help women who are not professionals like herself. Sarah’s apt to be concerned about women who don’t have a lot of skills and maybe cobble together different jobs in the food service industry or retail to help make ends meet. And she’s right to be concerned about these lower-skilled women, because these are the workers who will really be impacted by this seemingly compassionate legislation.
Most businesses are not corporate enterprises – they work on tight profit margins. And the reason these businesses don’t provide benefits like this is because they generally can’t afford to. But if they are forced to, they’ll do so by cutting wages and reducing jobs. I agree it sounds bad to have a job without paid sick leave – but it sounds worse to tell a woman she doesn’t have a job at all.
What’s more, the HFA is just a precursor to what Democrats really want to pass: the FAMILY Act, which would aggressively expand the Family and Medical Leave Act, by creating a new federal entitlement program in which workers would be entitled to 60 days of leave time when they could receive two-thirds of their existing pay. And there’s nothing modest at all about that.
Here’s the thing. In all areas of her life, Sarah hasn’t needed someone to take care of her. She took out loans for graduate school, she moved countless times, and exhibited tremendous confidence as she traveled the globe. She and her husband have made thoughtful considerations about their work, where they live, and how they spend their money. They should also have the ability to make the arrangements that make the most sense for them about benefits versus take-home pay. What will ultimately be beneficial to Sarah and her family – like all working women, skilled or unskilled – is workplace flexibility, so that when her daughter does have to stay home from school one day, she has choices.
That’s why the best solution is not more government interference but a strong economy with robust job growth. This will give Sarah more opportunity to find a job that she enjoys but also that suits her family’s needs. And Sarah isn’t the same as all of her friends either. We want women – and men – to be able to put together workplace arrangements that work best for them, and one-size-fits all mandates will certainly prevent such diversity of options.
We all understand the need for time off of work; but let’s get a little more creative in how we address the problem.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum.