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Q&A: The benefits and limitations of paid family leave

SIEPR’s Maya Rossin-Slater discusses how paid family leave is not a “silver bullet” for advancing gender equality but is beneficial for health, well-being and financial stability.

When it comes to advancing gender equality in the workplace, paid family leave is often touted as a policy to help women balance career and caretaking. But it should not be seen as a “silver bullet,” according to Stanford scholar Maya Rossin-Slater. In fact, research on the effects of paid leave on women’s career trajectories provides a mixed picture, she says, with impacts being dependent on the length of leave and other factors.

Rather, a reason to support paid family leave (PFL) is because of its health and well-being benefits and its contributions to overall financial stability, said Rossin-Slater, an economist and associate professor of health policy in the School of Medicine. In her research, she analyzes the economic and health impacts of paid family leave, studying workers, families and employers.

Here, as part of Women’s History Month, Rossin-Slater, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), talks about the holistic benefits of PFL. She has reviewed some of the available evidence demonstrating the positive benefits of PFL for child and maternal health, and her research — jointly authored by Petra Persson, a faculty fellow at SIEPR — has found that workplace flexibility for fathers can lead to positive spillover effects for mothers. It can, for example, lower the likelihood of having to see a medical specialist for childbirth related complications.

Rossin-Slater also discusses how support for PFL has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic as more employers realized how helpful it was for their employees.

Recent research from the National Women’s Law Center on recovery from pandemic-related job losses revealed the stark difference between men and women returning to work, with women trailing behind men by about 1.1 million jobs. Lack of affordable child care is cited as one reason for the disparity. Could PFL be another?

It is possible that a lack of access to paid family leave may contribute to this disparity between men and women returning to work. PFL provides an opportunity for workers to take several weeks off work to take care of a newborn, newly adopted child or a family member who has a severe but temporary illness. To date, only nine states and Washington, D.C., have enacted paid family leave legislation, and only 19 percent of American workers have access to such leave from their employers. While the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provided access to paid family leave on a temporary basis due to the pandemic, it expired at the end of 2020. As we know, the pandemic has lasted longer than that. For the millions of families who had a child during the pandemic, a lack of PFL may have pushed more mothers out of the labor force, especially as child care options became more limited and people worried about risk of COVID exposure for their infants in child care settings. In addition, being able to take time off work to care for an ill family member – or even just a child who must quarantine from school due to a COVID infection or exposure – could have been particularly valuable for women, who tend to be the default caregivers in these situations.

You found that support among employers for PFL grew during the pandemic. Why do you think the policy is gaining more traction now?

In our research, we found that 61.6 percent of employers with 10 to 99 employees in New York and New Jersey were either very or somewhat supportive of PFL in the fall of 2019, pre-pandemic. However, this share rose to 70.7 percent by fall of 2020 – the height of the pandemic. This increase in support appears to be driven by employers who had at least one employee use either the state PFL policy or the FFCRA leave. Thus, it may be that employers who were originally skeptical of the policy realized that it was helpful once they actually had one of their workers use it.

Can paid family leave help advance gender equality?

In my view, paid family leave is not a “silver bullet” policy in terms of advancing gender equality. It is often framed as such, and advocates argue that it will improve women’s career trajectories while also changing gender dynamics within households toward a more gender equitable distribution of work both outside and within the home. However, the existing research about the impacts of paid family leave policies on women’s career trajectories is quite mixed. Studies on the introduction of California’s first-in-the-nation paid family leave policy find either small positive or zero impacts on women’s career outcomes, and one study even found small negative impacts for some subgroups. Research from Europe, where many policies exceed one year in length, has found negative impacts of such lengthy leaves on women’s career progression. Similarly, the evidence on the impacts of paid leave on men’s participation in household and child care work has been mixed. There is, however, quite a bit of evidence that paid family leave is beneficial for family health and well-being outcomes, in terms of infant and maternal health and overall financial stability, especially in low-income families. Thus, I would argue that a key reason to advocate for paid family leave is because of its health and well-being benefits, rather than because of what it can or cannot do for gender equality.

Why do you think that the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to paid family leave policies?

There are two answers to that. One is politics, which is more nebulous and harder to change because of an ideology that a federally mandated PFL program would be too much government overreach.

The second part is a general view that PFL is going to be costly for businesses, particularly small businesses – some of the most vocal opponents to federal and state paid leave legislation tend to be small business organizations and lobbyists. But despite this perception, there has been limited evidence that either supports or negates it.

We did do one study where we surveyed small businesses – employers with 10 to 99 workers – in the state of New York, where in 2018 a paid family leave policy was implemented, and in Pennsylvania, where there was no such program. We surveyed businesses in 2016 and 2017, two years before the policy went into effect and then again in 2018 and 2019 after the law.

Over this four-year period, we found no indication that New York’s policy was burdensome for businesses. If anything, we found that, compared to employers in Pennsylvania, employers in New York experienced an increase in average ratings of employee commitment and cooperation, as well as an increase in their rating of the ease of handling lengthy worker absences. These impacts appeared to be driven by employers who had at least one employee use leave. Thus, we found that employers’ experience with the policy was not so bad – and may have even been a positive experience.

What are some other challenges preventing greater uptake in paid family leave in the United State?

One challenge is that even when people have access to leave through their employer, there might not be a culture that encourages people to use it. Thus, access is not sufficient – structural and cultural barriers to use must be removed as well.

During the negotiations for the Build Back Better plan, one thing that came up was the duration of paid leave. The initial proposal suggested 12 weeks of paid family leave but that then got reduced to four. While some leave is better than none, my concern is that four weeks may be too short to achieve benefits that would advance any type of health or gender equity. Moreover, if this is too short of a time period to have much of an effect, an argument could then be made that such a program is not impactful and should be cut. But again, some leave is better than no leave, so it’s a hard issue to resolve.

A version of this story was originally published by Stanford News Service as part of a series of stories for Women’s History Month.