A newly released report from Innovation Ohio details benefits of paid family leave, a policy Ohio doesn’t have

The fact that the majority of people working in the State of Ohio lack access to paid parental leave is an issue that is very oddly not the topic of frequent discussion in Ohio’s political spaces. Yet, the more I think about it (as I’m writing this article) the more I can tell that this is definitely a silence that needs to be broken.

The significant consequences associated with a lack of paid parental leave policies, and the impact those consequences have on the lives of so many working women, men, and their children, has for too long gone under-discussed and under-recognized by society at large. But not anymore, in Ohio at least, thanks to a recent policy report that’s been released on the topic, researched by the great folks over at Innovation Ohio!

As a young woman entering the workforce in the not-too-distant future, and imagining that one day I’ll be starting a family, this is an issue that I know will impact my future, particularly my ability to balance responsibilities at the workplace with responsibilities at home–as so many do, quietly, with little support or recognition. The lack of paid family leave policies won’t only come to affect me one day; they have already affected generations of working parents, and made lasting, often negative impacts on the health, safety, and economic stability of their households.

What is “Paid Parental Leave”?

Paid parental leave is an employee benefit available in nearly all developed countries. It affords workers the ability to take paid time off from work in order to recover from childbirth, bond with a newborn, care for a sick child, or make arrangements for the child’s welfare. Parental leave covers circumstances such as maternity, paternity, and adoption leave.

What is the policy currently, and why is it a problem?

I mentioned earlier that paid parental leave (sometimes known as “family leave”) is available in nearly every developed country in the world. Remarkably, this excludes the United States. Here at home, it is a policy available only at the discretion of employers who may choose whether or not to opt in to some form of family leave program. (Additionally, Ohio is among the 45 states in the country that have chosen not to implement a paid family leave insurance policy, facilitated through tax-withholding.)

Instead of requiring paid family leave (to benefit workers and households–aka consumers), the U.S. has a more “bare-bones” policy, known as the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), with none of that nonsense included about, you know, paying people. The FMLA, as it’s called, keeps employers (of 50 people or more) from being able to fire workers for taking time off for medical or family reasons; but, it only requires that employers allow workers to return to the job after a period of unpaid time off, a luxury that most low-income earners cannot afford to take. While this policy was supposed to have been enacted to protect the employment of women with children, the numbers show reveal that its purpose is not being served. Only 59% of workers in the U.S. are eligible for FMLA protection. And, according to the policy report just released by Innovation Ohio, the lions share of FMLA-eligible workers do not make use of the policy, citing “inability to afford time off without pay” as a key reason for not taking needed family leave.

It’s very possible that in passing the FMLA, Congress expected the law to act as a policy floor–a minimum requirement meant to be augmented by individual employers with discretionary policies that grant workers greater access to more comprehensive parental leave benefits. Unfortunately, the sad truth remains that many if not most business owners are focused on finding more and more ways to cut costs and maximize their profits, no matter if the health, safety, and welfare of their employees’ families hangs in the balance of their decision-making.

So, with the FMLA, we can understand that the “floor” exists. The point here is, the time has come to build the ceiling.

What other options do we have?

PAID family leave. A requirement that employers offer some degree of compensation over some substantive length of time, allowing workers with families, such as new moms with infants, to provide the necessary care demanded of them at home, without sacrificing the economic security of work.

Why is Paid Family Leave such a good policy idea?

I’m glad you asked.

As mentioned earlier, Innovation Ohio recently released a policy report offering a comprehensive look at the consequences of not having paid family leave policies, and the benefits found when states or businesses do institute such a policy for their workers. It is found that the State of Ohio, in particular, would benefit from paid family leave, and at little overall cost to the state’s economy. Here’s how:

1. By strengthening women and families.

The typical American family that the FMLA is described to work for is no longer an accurate model for today’s typical American family. In fact, we’re not sure there is such a thing as a typical American family. It’s 2015. People get married and divorced. People raise children with a partner…or as a single parent. If they do raise their children with a partner, it’s likely that both parents actually have to work five days a week in order to support their family. Paid family leave is an issue that disproportionately affects women, and most of all affects the children of minority women, as maternity leave is the most common form of family leave lacking a protective policy structure.

2. Reducing gender and economic inequality

Low-income working people are disproportionately impacted by the lack of accommodations for paid family leave. Unpaid maternity leave has played an ubiquitous role in widening the pay gap between men and women in the United States (.78 cents to every dollar!). In fact, did you know that more than three-quarters of the workers in the 10 largest low-wage occupations are women and over one-third are women of color? It’s time to bridge the gap between gender and economic inequality in the United States, and one of the largest strides we can take is the implementation of safe and secure paid family leave policies.

3. Benefiting the health of women and their children

Being effectively forced to go into work, when unable to afford the luxury of time off without pay, is shown to be damaging to the health of both mothers and children. When 10-weeks of paid family leave is made available to new parents, it has been shown to decrease incidences of infant mortality in the first month of life by 2.6 percent, and by 4.1 percent for the remainder of the first year. It also allows mothers to breastfeed with more consistency, which is recommended for the first six months of the child’s life because of the mutual benefits it allots to both mother and child. Additionally, extended paid leave has been connected with higher rates of on-schedule immunization (vaccinations) of infants after childbirth.

4. Strengthening the economy

Job-protected, paid-leave has been shown to have a significant impact on growing the size of the work force in countries that have implemented the policies. On average, these countries have seen their labor force participation grow by more than 18 percent in two decades, compared to a more stagnant growth rate in the United States where paid leave is not mandated. This rapid growth in the labor force is largely attributed to the number of women that these paid leave policies enable to join the workforce.

An additional economic benefit of paid family leave are the reduced demands for social services. Because paid leave helps to prevent families from falling into impoverished circumstances, women who use paid leave are 39 percent less likely to receive tax-payer assistance and 40 percent less likely to be enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

5. Fortifying a more productive workforce

Paid leave policies have also been connected with employer benefits such as increases in employee retention, boosts in overall productivity, and reported spikes in employee satisfaction. Employee turnover can often be the result of pregnancy, childbirth, and women not being afforded the opportunity for paid leave. Women are also more likely to stay in the workforce if they have some greater sense of job security. In fact, an analysis of California’s paid family leave insurance program found that mothers who took advantage of paid family leave worked 6-9 percent more hours each week once they returned to work.

If you’re interested in reading more about the benefits of paid family leave and any future initiatives to bring it to the Buckeye State, contact us, or follow InnovationOhio.org for more information.