Americans conflicted on paid leave
Most people say workers should get paid leave to take care of a baby, a sick family member or themselves, according to two new surveys. But they disagree on the details: who should pay, and whether it should be mandatory or optional.
The idea of a federal paid leave policy brings up issues that Americans have complicated feelings about — like government mandates for businesses and gender roles at home — according to the surveys, released this week by the Pew Research Center.
This ambivalence helps explain a paradox: why a policy with so much bipartisan support has failed to be enacted. The U.S. is the only industrialized country that doesn’t mandate paid leave.
Yet the surveys make clear that the need crosses income, gender and political lines, and affects people’s career decisions and wages.
Ninety-four percent of respondents said paid leave would help families, and 65 percent said it would help the economy.
American workers now get 12 weeks of unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act, but only about 60 percent are eligible. Thirteen percent of workers get paid leave from their employers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. High earners are much more likely to get it, while low earners are more likely to fall into poverty because of a birth or an illness.
Large majorities support paid leave — between 67 percent and 85 percent, depending on the type of leave — according to the Pew report, which included two nationally representative online surveys of 8,000 Americans total. One survey was about people’s general opinions about family leave, and the other about their personal experiences with it.
But Americans are torn about the government’s role. Only half of people overall and one-third of Republicans think it should mandate leave, versus continuing to let employers decide. Sixty-nine percent of Democrats supported a government mandate.
The debate over family leave seems to have moved on from whether mothers should work to how to help working families, and people are increasingly likely to think of caregiving as a shared responsibility.
Most people said a paid leave policy should be available to both sexes. Opinions about paternity leave illustrate the shift: 82 percent of adults under 30 said new fathers should get it, and 55 percent of those over 65.
Despite the enthusiasm for paid leave, there is disagreement about how to pay for it.
The most popular idea was a tax credit to employers who offered leave, strongly or somewhat supported by 87 percent of respondents. Next was pretax savings accounts for employees to save for leave, supported by 84 percent.
Sixty-two percent of people at least somewhat supported a government fund that employers and employees pay into — a policy used in three states. Least popular, with 60 percent support, was a government paid leave program financed through higher taxes on wealthy people or corporations.