Carrie Lukas joins the podcast to talk about this month’s policy focus—Avoiding Paid Leave Pitfalls. We discuss why making the emergency COVID paid leave benefits permanent will undermine existing paid leave benefits, raise taxes, and reduce wages for poor workers, as well as limit women’s employment opportunities.
Carrie Lukas is the president of the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the co-author of Liberty Is No War on Women, and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism. She is also a contributor to National Review, Forbes.com, and Acculturated; and is the vice president for policy and economics at Independent Women’s Voice.
Welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you’re allowed to think for yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Hallberg and I’m delighted that joining us for our policy deep dive is Carrie Lukas, president of Independent Women’s Forum and author of this month’s policy focus, Avoiding Paid Leave Pitfalls. We’ll discuss why making the emergency COVID paid leave benefits permanent, will undermine existing benefits, raise taxes and reduce wages for poor workers, and limit women’s employment opportunities. But before we bring her on, a little bit more about Carrie Lukas, as I mentioned, she is the president of the Independent Women’s Forum. She is also the co-author of Liberty Is No War on Women and the author of the Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism. She is a contributor to National Review, forbes.com, and Acculturated, and is the vice president for Policy and Economics at Independent Women’s Voice. Carrie, it is a pleasure to have you on She Thinks today.
Thank you so much for having me on, I’m looking forward to it.
And I want to let everybody know, if they’re interested in reading this policy focus called Avoiding Paid Leave Pitfalls, do go to iwf.org, you can check it out there. Carrie, why don’t you first of all, just start by explaining to us what is the definition of paid leave and how many workers had access to paid leave through their employer, prior to COVID?
I appreciate you taking that big picture look because I do think that often this is a concept or a topic that is a little bit misunderstood. A paid leave is the term that is basically anytime you are receiving time away from work, but are still being paid as if you are working. So this is your vacation time, your sick leave, and time off for maternity and for what they call family leaves. Now, some workers and some companies offer specific 10 days of sick leave or specific, what we call, silos of different types of leave. But the good news is, is that a growing number of workers and companies have paid leave. That they are offering paid leave benefits in some form or the other. The vast majority, about more than 80% of people working for a private company does have access to some kind of paid time off.
And it’s amazing. When you think about this, over recent years, there’s also even been an explosion in the amount of paid leave and paid time off, that is enjoyed for part-time workers. And part-time workers are one of those, you don’t expect there to be as many benefits provided since it isn’t the same robust relationship. But just in the last 10 years, only 28% of part-time workers had sick leave in 2009, and that’s all the way up to 43% in 2019. So we are really heading in the right direction when it comes to workers getting access to paid leave from companies voluntarily. So it’s important as a backdrop before we get the government involved, to really define the trends and where we’re going and the needs that workers actually have.
Yeah, I can say from my own private company, there are only four full-time employees on the payroll, but yet everybody has vacation time, sick time, we have maternity leave for those who need it. So that is something that is provided through District Media Group, without the government telling us to do so. Now, break it down, how has the government getting involved in this, especially during COVID?
Yeah, it’s interesting as you say that Beverly, because even something that I think is important when you hear these numbers, and you’ll see something and you’ll find statistics out there that are used to justify government action. Most women do not have access to paid time off for maternity leave. And it’s actually, it’s interesting when you dig into the numbers because while maternity leave and leave that is specific for a birth of a baby or adoption, it’s not as prevalent as something like sick leave or paid vacation even. But the thing is, is that there’s still a lot of companies that allow workers to use their sick leave, their vacation time to cobble together paid maternity leave. So even when you see some of this, this kind of scared data that is meant to make it sound as though workers just have no rights and no benefits. That’s not really the experience that most people have.
It is important because, as so often happens, there is a need, there are people certainly who lack the support they need when they need time off from work, but when the government comes in, all nuances lost. And rather than helping just those folks who lack paid leave or need time off and struggle because they don’t have it from their employers. The government comes in with a one size fits all policy that says, “Hey, you’re going to have exactly this. This is the benefits package that every employer has to provide to their workers. And that’s it, take it or leave it.” And this is what happened during COVID. It’s interesting, obviously, COVID through the world upside down and changed the rules for everybody. But with COVID they came in and said that basically, all workers had the right to… Actually, I believe it was up to 12 weeks off for COVID-related, if you couldn’t work because of COVID.
For an organization like Independent Women’s Forum, where we have about a little more than 20 full-time workers, almost all of us had had some disruption when it came to COVID. There’s a lot of moms out there, I’m a mom with five kids, all of whom suddenly wasn’t going to school anymore, and that meant they were poking at me when I was on the computer and made it harder to work. But what the government was saying, was that a work like that, who had school-aged kids was supposed to be entirely free from work for 12 weeks while still being paid. Gosh, that’s a tremendous disruption. I’m fortunate at the Independent Women’s Forum, everybody had a really good attitude and nobody abused the policy.
We all understood that people had different disruptions and pulled together to make things work. But for a different type of entity, a different type of organization, there’s a lot of workers who might be tempted to abuse that policy. Even if they weren’t going to abuse it, it means that a lot of businesses simply would not be able to operate because of those workers… They wouldn’t have the staff, they couldn’t function without their valued workers. Now the question is, what we do now. These policies were put in place, really in the sense of a moment of crisis, and now the question is, what are we going to do moving forward? And I really hope that Americans can step back and realize that we should not be governed as if there’s always an emergency, and we always need a one-size-fits-all, government-imposed, vision of our employment contracts. Because otherwise, there are tremendous consequences to this, negative consequences to this, and especially, there’ll be negative consequences for women.
And even talking about the four, you were saying up to four months of somebody maybe not working, and that’s a tremendous amount of disruption if that takes place. So some states require, already, for companies to pay for family leave and that money is just deducted from them. There’s also the federal aspect to this, but what has this meant for companies specifically those in states, and I know in the District of Columbia, where they are already forced to provide funds to this fund, that they may never even have their employees draw from. Has this negatively impacted business, having paid leave mandatory payments? Does that harm your business?
Oh, absolutely. It’s interesting. There are a few things, you’re right that around the country, there is a growing number of states who have their own state leave regimes. And basically what this is, is all of a sudden workers are required to pay into, or companies are required, to pay a payroll tax on behalf of workers that is supposed to be dedicated to providing for paid leave, and there’s a few really interesting things about this. Number one, people often only see one side of the ledger, when they think about paid leave, they say, “Oh, this is great. People are going to have this new benefit stream and it’s such a win for workers. That’s wonderful, a couple of extra weeks on paid time off, more time with kids. Who could be against this?” But then they have to look at the other side of the ledger.
And sometimes that’s things like money. So if you are a worker and you’re going to be losing 1% of your payroll, your compensation is suddenly going to attack, that’s a lot of money. Even if it’s a few hundred bucks for a low-wage worker, that’s a few hundred dollars of your disposable income every year, regardless of whether you are going to use this time off or not. But there’s also the sense that then a lot of companies that before had provided different benefits, they’re very likely to say, “You know what, I’m not going to offer what I had been offering, and you can use the state lease system.” Beverly, I bet that this is the kind of thing that you would think of, like somebody running a small business. I know I think about this as the person in charge of the budget for our nonprofit.
Right now, we do provide maternity leave, a few weeks at full pay of maternity leave for women when they have a child. But if all of a sudden, if we were now paying a payroll tax, if every worker was paying into a federal program, I would likely say, “Okay guys, you know what? We’re not going to be providing the maternity leave that we used to, and you instead have to use this other government-provided paid leave because we’re already paying into it and you should collect that, et cetera.” But that means that instead of getting full pay and then being able to negotiate and talk to me about what their hopes and desires are, as they return from maternity leave. Instead, they would be getting exactly what the government says.
So then all of a sudden you would have, the government programs usually replace only a fraction of your take-home pay. So you’d be getting two-thirds of your pay, instead of full pay for however many weeks, and then it’s a hard stop, you need to come back or your maternity leave is done and that’s it. So all of a sudden you have this very different, and sometimes it is a less generous maternity leave problem. And it also gets in the way of conversations, that sometimes there’s a lot of gray areas where you can say, “Here take this time off and you can not do these tasks, but can you participate in these three phone calls that are really important or…” Little things like that. All of a sudden, nope. The government has decided this is it, and this is how it’s going to be.
And when you’re thinking about it, one of the interesting and I think really underappreciated dynamics when it comes to these state and government programs is that when you’re providing only a fraction of the paid replacement, or what they call wage replacement. So if paid leave is at two-thirds of your salary rate, instead of a full salary, a lot of people can’t afford to take it. And that’s why places like California, where of course they created a state law saying, “Oh, this is going to be wonderful for poor women who don’t get to take off time with their children.”
But in fact, studies have consistently shown that poor women, the women in the lower-income bracket, are much less likely than those with high incomes, to be taking this benefit. So in fact, poor people are paying in and they are funding the time off for rich people, who frankly don’t even need this program. So it’s really what we call Robin Hood in reverse, it’s taking from the poor to give to the rich. It’s the exact opposite of how it’s sold and it’s a devastating impact on women and to low-income workers.
And unfortunately, this is one of those policy issues that sounds great by the name, it sounds great on paper, but then when you get into the details, you realize things like that, which is that this negatively impacts low-income workers. And the question I have for you is that it also supposes that businesses and employers are going to treat their employees poorly. But the reality is… Isn’t the reality that most businesses, the reason they have benefits, to begin with, is that they’re competing for good employees. They’re competing against other businesses that also need workers. Isn’t it the case that having these negotiating tools about sick time and maternity leave and vacation pay, are these contracts that both employers and employees can enter into and employers aren’t the bad guys in this?
Yeah, absolutely. And frankly, it is one of those… We hear a lot in America about diversity, and we recognize that there is a diversity of people, of how people… What they want, how they prefer to work and live their lives, and that’s a great thing, we’re supposed to appreciate that not everyone has 2.2 kids and wants the same things. But we’re trying to structure our leave programs based on this idea that everybody’s going to want the same things when it comes to time off and everyone’s going to want to the structure, especially when it comes to things like maternity leave. How they come back to work, and the time they take off from work, we are all cookie-cutter Stepford Wives, and that’s obviously not how it works.
And you’re right, a lot of employers out there, most employers… Obviously, there are some bad apples and there are some companies that could do more for their workers. But the vast majority of employers are trying because they have to, because of the free market, because they need valued workers, or else these workers will go elsewhere, are trying to keep and attract valued employees. So they offer things like benefits, they find ways to help people transition back. And again, I feel like a lot of people… When I’m talking about this, I want to stop and say, “Have you ever actually run a business? Do you know how payroll works, and how these things work?” Because again, I’m the president of Independent Women’s Forum, we’ve got 20, some odd, women full-time on staff, and a lot of them are having babies.
I’ve got three women who are expecting and will go on maternity leave this year. And they don’t all want the same thing. And I will work with them on the time they’re going to take off, where they’re fully off. How they’re going to transition back to work. If they want to take longer or need more, depending on the health reasons. This isn’t a one size fits all conversation, people have different preferences. It really is, it’s frustrating how much it ends up hurting women and really trying to take away true workplace flexibility, which is when workers actually have a say in the types of arrangements that they get to choose.
Well, before we continue the conversation, I’d like to take a moment to highlight IWF’s Champion Women Profile Series, which focuses on women across the country and world that are accomplishing amazing things. The media too often ignores their stories, but we don’t, we celebrate them and we bring their stories to you. Our current profile is representative Michelle Fischbach from Minnesota’s seventh congressional district. To check out her story, do go to iwf.org to see why she is this week’s, champion woman. And Carrie, I just want to follow up on that, you talk about flexibility and I think flexibility is key. I think something that IWF really was ahead of the game on, was working from home.
I remember when you all transitioned from a brick-and-mortar shop to having people work from home, which was perfect prep for what we’re going through in COVID. And I know a lot of the people who work for IWF, one of the reasons they do is because there is that flexibility to work from home, especially when they’re mothers. That flexibility is so key, and so what I want to know is, what are the flexible options that IWF thinks need to be there for family leave? Paid family leave, what does that look like?
Yeah. And I do think that when we start out talking about paid family leave, it reminds me of the healthcare debate. When there was a conversation going on before Obamacare, there was this sense that something had to be done, but then surveys consistently showed that people tended to be happy with their own health insurance and their own healthcare situation, but they were worried about other people. And there was obviously, on our healthcare system there’s often, a not-insignificant portion of people who are falling through the cracks and who do need help and need a better system. But the key is, is that you don’t want to wipe away the entire system that’s working for most people to help the minority. Instead, you need to focus on finding better ways to target aid, and I really hope that’s where we go with paid leave.
As we were discussing, there’s a lot of people, a lot of companies, that are voluntarily offering paid leave, and it’s a growing portion, including for part-time workers. But we can find ways to target aid at those who need it. And there are some innovative ways… At the Independent Women’s Forum, Kristin Shapiro, one of our fellows, wrote a paper creating an idea, proposing the idea of allowing workers to draw on their future social security benefits, so they could have financial support for the time when they are welcoming a baby into their home, whether it’s adoption or for the birth of a child. This would allow somebody, if you’re 30 years old and you don’t have paid time off from work, you haven’t accrued enough savings to fund that time, you want to be able to take off two months following the birth of a child.
You could receive a payment that is your future social security payment and take that now, and then just delay your eligibility for social security, so effectively pay that back year down the road. And I think that’s a really important concept, and we’ve been really proud that there’s been a number of senators and House members who have introduced this concept as legislation. And I really hope that this is something… And this is one of those ideas, that’s about giving people new options, but it doesn’t impose anything on anyone, it doesn’t harm, it doesn’t change the situation for any other worker. So if you like your situation, if you have a good benefits package, this isn’t going to affect you, this doesn’t hurt your social security or impact your social security, but for people who need it, it could be a real lifeline.
So, I think that’s one positive approach, but we could also… It’s interesting, we have savings accounts, tax advantage savings accounts, for education, for retirement, for health care. Why not create something where people can save on behalf of pay time from work so that if you don’t have paid leave, you can contribute, and then if you do have to take time from work, you can draw upon those. That would also be something that employers could contribute to, it’s another way for them to provide support, even if they aren’t able to offer workers paid leave. So those are just a couple of ideas. One other thing I think is worth thinking about, is this idea of using the unemployment system. Because in some ways, when you think about maternity leave, it can be seen as a temporary disability or something, where temporarily you can’t work because of this extenuating circumstance. Instead, a lot of women end up… Those who lacked paid leave and are struggling, may end up quitting their job and not going back entirely and end up often on long-term government assistance.
How much better if we could do something where they have temporarily received their unemployment and then were able to get back on and get back to work after a certain amount of time. So that’s another way an existing program, that could be expanded, again, rather than reinventing the wheel and displacing all of the employment contracts that are currently enforced, and that so many people think are just fine and would prefer rather than the one size fits all government regime.
Yeah, and the common thread of all those approaches that you mentioned, is that choice is involved, that people can choose what fits for them. And that is what government wants to take away, wants that one size fits all approach. And so my final question for you is, when it comes to the changes that have happened in paid leave during COVID, are there current efforts to make that permanent? Do we see new legislation out there, or is this just something where you’re hearing chatter about it and we need to be prepared to fight that now?
Yeah, I think this is much more in the chatter stage. I do think that there will be an attempt to extend the provisions that were passed as a part of the cares act, which required that companies provide this paid leave, so that’s one approach. But there are also many more bold approaches that are being considered and could be considered this year, something like the family act, which really would be a massive, massive new tax on all workers and a new benefit stream, which would really replace everyone’s employment contracts. Everybody would be impacted if we pass something like the family act and everyone had to start receiving their paid family, their time off from the government, rather than from their employers.
So those are both ones that are worth looking out for. And again, one other thing I think is important that I haven’t mentioned yet is, when we think about the costs of this, as an employer, you know when the government comes in and makes it more difficult to employ someone or more expensive to employ someone. You are going to be trying… Your instinct as a boss, or as the person who’s trying to figure out how to make payroll, to hire fewer people.
You want to have fewer liabilities, as fewer risks and question marks as possible, so you’re going to be using fewer workers. That will become one of the things that would happen if we do come to a time when we had a regime where everyone, the family act, would offer it… People would have, for many, many reasons, would have the ability to take off, I think it’s either eight or 12 weeks of work a year, every year. As an employer, you’d be thinking, “My goodness. I don’t want to hire somebody if they’re not going to… Let me see if I can make do with the few people I have, or find a contractor, or find ways that I don’t have to deal with this because having people disappear for months at a time will be incredibly disruptive as well as costly.”
So, this is the kind of thing, and a lot of employers are going to think, “That woman who’s got a bunch of little kids, she’s more likely to take off that time.” And we see this in Europe, where Europe has very liberal laws when it comes to paid leave. There are a lot fewer women who are in top managerial positions than here in the United States. So there are real costs to this that come in lost opportunities, especially for women. So don’t believe it when they tell you that they sell this idea as if this is a big win for women, because there are some big downsides too.
You heard it here, don’t believe it, remember this is bad for women. So go to read that policy focus it’s called Avoiding Paid Leave Pitfalls, you can find that on iwf.org, but for now, Carrie Lukas, president of IWF, thank you so much for joining us today.
Great, thanks so much for having me on Beverly.
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