Time off that works

Paid-leave reg­u­la­tions should be sen­si­ble, not ex­trav­a­gant.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

PEO­PLE SHOULD be able to take med­i­cal leave, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing and af­ter preg­nan­cies, with­out wor­ry­ing about get­ting fired or go­ing broke. This is both a hu­mane goal and, given that it pro­motes healthy child­bear­ing and sta­ble fam­i­lies, an in­vest­ment in the na­tion’s fu­ture.

Fed­eral law in this area falls short. The 1993 Fam­ily and Med­i­cal Leave Act re­quires em­ploy­ers to of­fer 12 weeks of un­paid leave, but the law cov­ers only about 60 per­cent of work­ers, ac­cord­ing to the Coun­cil of Eco­nomic Ad­vis­ers . More­over, for those whose em­ploy­ers don’t of­fer paid leave, tak­ing time off may be un­af­ford­able.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the Coun­cil of Eco­nomic Ad­vis­ers found that low-in­come and mi­nor­ity groups have the least ac­cess to paid leave op­tions. For ev­ery five work­ers who re­ported tak­ing fam­ily or med­i­cal leave in 2011, one re­ported not be­ing able to take needed time off. For low-in­come work­ers, the pri­mary chal­lenge was financial; bet­ter-off work­ers cited “too much work,” not financial dif­fi­cul­ties, as the prin­ci­pal bar­rier.

With this pic­ture in mind, thought­ful pol­icy would set two goals. First, the gov­ern­ment should re­duce financial ob­sta­cles for the poor and mid­dle class. In­stead of man­dat­ing that em­ploy­ers of­fer paid leave — which, among other things, doesn’t help con­trac­tors or the self-em­ployed — the gov­ern­ment should pro­vide pro­gres­sively scaled pay­ments to those who would face real financial strains in tak­ing leave. Sec­ond, the gov­ern­ment should more deeply en­trench re­quire­ments that work­ers can’t be pe­nal­ized for tak­ing leave, what­ever their in­come. That would in­volve ex­pand­ing the Fam­ily and Med­i­cal Leave Act’s ex­ist­ing pro­tec­tions.

In­stead of this sort of plan, how­ever, the one that’s get­ting the most at­ten­tion is from pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.) and a slew of Sen­ate Democrats. Mr. San­ders, who seems never to miss an op­por­tu­nity to pro­pose cre­at­ing a uni­ver­sal en­ti­tle­ment where one isn’t nec­es­sary, fa­vors a paid leave ben­e­fit avail­able to all work­ers, re­gard­less of in­come. In­stead of pro­gres­sively scal­ing down with in­come, ben­e­fits ac­tu­ally in­crease with in­come, to a max­i­mum of $4,000 per month. Ev­ery­one, even mil­lion­aires, could claim ben­e­fit checks. Mean­while, ev­ery­one’s So­cial Se­cu­rity taxes, even non­mil­lion­aires’, would go up to pay for it. Pro­gres­sives should be very un­com­fort­able tax­ing all wage earn­ers in part to fi­nance ben­e­fits for the wealthy.

The idea is of a piece with Mr. San­ders’s broader agenda to mas­sively ex­pand uni­ver­sal en­ti­tle­ments just as the uni­ver­sal pro­grams al­ready in place are set to crowd out all other spend­ing in the fed­eral bud­get. He pig­gy­backs on the pop­u­lar­ity of pro­grams such as So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care, when those are hardly the only mod­els avail­able to pol­i­cy­mak­ers seek­ing to im­prove the so­cial safety net. In­deed, they can­not be the mod­els pol­i­cy­mak­ers choose in an era in which care­fully hus­band­ing na­tional wealth is in­creas­ingly cru­cial.

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