Conservatives need to get ready for a debate about government's role in ensuring that American workers have access to paid leave time. The President has called for a proposal to require businesses with more than 15 employees to offer workers seven paid sick days each year, while other Democrats propose more sweeping legislation, such as the FAMILY Act, which would create a brand-new, massive government paid-leave entitlement program.
Americans overwhelmingly sympathize with workers who need to be able to take time-off without penalty. This 2013 poll that showed 3 out of 4 Americans supporting government action in this area, and it's no wonder: Who doesn't want to help new moms and struggling parents with sick kids?
Of course, just because there is real hardship doesn't mean that government action is going to solve the problem. Conservatives need to do the hard work of explaining the real trade-offs that come with government employment mandates. After all, these laws don't give employees a new benefit. Rather they outlaw a whole universe of employment options. Workers who would prefer more take-home and fewer benefits are the big losers from one-size-fits-all, government-imposed employment contracts. And in fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today, more than thirty percent of a worker's total compensation goes to provide benefits. That may be fine for some, but others may happily trade those benefits for a 30 percent increase in take-home pay. Moreover, Americans have recently seen how employers react to such regulations with ObamaCare, as business convert some employees into part-timers or try to consolidate their workforce in order to avoid the law's mandates.
That's why government should only intervene in employment contracts for a very compelling reason, and should seek to do so in the least disruptive way possible. As I wrote in the YG Network's book, Room to Grow, if the public believes it is necessary for government to do something to help ensure that workers have enough paid time off, then that intervention should at least be targeted to those most likely to really need assistance, such as lower-wage workers. I suggest that one could use the EITC as a model, and make that tax credit payment available at the time leave is needed. This would provide lower-income leave takers with income support, but without changing their work incentives. Abby McCloskey suggested in Forbes that we could also look at using the existing Unemployment Insurance system or disability systems as an alternative approach to provide leave support, which are options certainly worth exploring.
However, as the discussion about paid leave policy options heats up, it's important to properly define the problem that we are seeking to address and not embrace the sometimes cartoonish portrait of the American workplace that's painted by the Left. For example, McCloskey writes:
There’s a reasonable case to be made that the country should rethink how we do family leave. Aside from Oman and Papua New Guinea, the U.S. is the only country in the world that doesn’t have paid maternity leave.
But the United States doesn't not have “paid maternity leave.” Rather, the United States doesn't have a law that mandates businesses must provide paid leave nor does the federal government have a program that directly provides leave for eligible workers. But plenty of businesses offer paid leave benefits, including maternity benefits. Conservatives should never echo the Left's implication that if the government doesn't do something, than it doesn't happen.
And in fact, many working women in America do have access to paid leave following the birth of a child. The Census Bureau studied the experience of women having their first baby and found that 56 percent of full-time working mothers reported using paid leave, 42 percent used unpaid leave, 10 percent used disability leave, 19 percent quit their job, while nearly 5 percent reported being let go (this adds up to more than 100 because many respondents fell into more than one category). Part-time workers were more likely to quit and had less access to benefits: 20 percent used paid leave, 46 percent used unpaid leave, and just two percent had disability leave.
Clearly this data doesn't suggest that all women are receiving the optimal amount of leave time after giving birth. But it should discourage wholly accepting the canard that U.S. workers have it worse than those in Serbia and Uzbekistan.
Analysts also need to consider how different employers use different silos for leave. Paid leave mandate advocates argue that only a small share of workers have “paid family leave,” but ignore that many companies opt for broader categories of leave, such as “personal leave” that are available for maternity and other family leave needs.
We've seen a bit of this phenomenon in the discussion of federal employee benefits. People seemed shocked that the federal government lacked paid maternity benefits. And certainly it is reasonable for the government to consider augmenting family leave benefits for federal workers.
But before we breakout the violins for our poor, put-upon bureaucrats, we should note all the benefits that they already receive. All federal government employees receive 13 days of paid sick leave each year. Those with three years or less of service earn 13 days of paid vacation. That goes up to 20 days of vacation each year after one has worked for the government for 3 years. Federal workers also have 10 paid holidays. That's a total of at least 36 paid days off each year, or the equivalent of more than 7 weeks. That's hardly a sweatshop.
Again, this doesn't mean that the federal government might not want to consider offering maternity leave benefits, but taxpayers who foot the bill for federal workers should understand that this new benefit would be in addition to an already fairly generous benefit package.
Americans should debate the costs and benefits of different ways to ensure that workers have support during times of leave. We should do so with an understanding of how a flexible, competitive work environment, that allows people to negotiate different mixes of take-home pay and benefits, contributes to that process. Not everyone may want the potential for six-weeks paid family leave, and there is no reason that such an employment arrangement should be out of bounds. That the United States allows for a wider range of employment relationships isn't an embarrassment; it's one of our economic strengths.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director at the Independent Women's Forum.