Three states show paid family leave can work

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. >> As the two leading presidential candidates tout competing campaign proposals to provide paid leave to care for a baby, the three states that already have such programs show how it could work.

The proposals from Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump are significantly different in how they'd be funded and who they'd help. But they have a clear precedent: not just the dozens of other rich countries that guarantee time off to care for a child or a sick family member, but also California, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

"It's working fine in all three states," said Jane Waldfogel, a professor at Columbia University's School of Social Work who has studied the effects and said the benefits are greatest for lower-income workers who don't get any paid time off.

California pioneered paid family leave in 2004, followed by New Jersey in 2009 and Rhode Island in 2014. New York will have the nation's most generous program when it launches in 2018, and many other states are considering similar laws that pay for the benefits in the same way they pay for disability insurance.

Leave for fathers

Fathers, who would be excluded from Trump's maternity leave program, are increasingly signing up for plans in the three states that allow paid family leave.

"A lot of moms can get stressed out with a newborn child," said Ryan Smith, of Cranston, R.I., who took two weeks of state-paid leave this year to bond with his newborn daughter. "When there are two parents there, it's definitely better than one."

Of Rhode Island parents who have taken leave so far this year to care for a new child, 37 percent are men, the highest rate of the three states.

California has seen the rate of men participating rise from 17 percent in its first year to nearly 36 percent of the 250,000 parents who took it in the most recent fiscal year. New Jersey lags in participating fathers, with about 13 percent.

In all three states, fathers are also less likely than mothers to take the full amount of paid leave allowed.

Popular program

Rhode Island was the first state to guarantee disability leave in 1942, and the caregiving leave adopted in 2014 relies on the same pool of money that covers disability insurance. It's funded through employee payroll deductions, meaning businesses don't have to pay.

Business groups still opposed it because private-sector workers must pay into the fund even when their employers offer their own paid leave. But a survey of Rhode Island employers conducted by Waldfogel and other researchers last year found that a majority supported the new law.

Smith said that both he and his wife took Rhode Island's paid leave when their second daughter, Eden, was born in late March, and that they combined it with vacation. His employer, a bank, was so supportive that it filled in the gap of what the state program didn't cover, he said. The state-funded leave pays 60 percent of a person's salary for up to four weeks.

A survey by researchers at the University of Rhode Island found that the program is popular, with most who participate saying they were satisfied. Those who took leave said it made them less stressful and healthier and gave them more time for breastfeeding and taking the baby to medical check-ups. They were also less likely to miss work once they returned.

"That's the whole goal, to change the culture, to honor the importance of caregiving," said Barbara Silver, a psychologist who led URI's survey. "We can't have a healthy society unless we have healthy families."

Questioning the benefits

Not all researchers are confident paid leave is helping young mothers.

A paper co-authored in 2014 by Solomon Polachek — an economics professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton who studied California's program — found that the number of young women in the labor force increased as a result of paid leave, but so did the number of young women who were unemployed, along with the duration of time they were unemployed when compared with men and older women.

"Basically what happened is this law induced more young women to enter the labor market or stay in the market as opposed to dropping out," Polachek said. "At the same time, companies looked at it and were a bit more reluctant to hire women."

That's not enough to worry paid family leave's champions, who question that study's methods and argue the societal benefits go far beyond employment numbers.

For now, the program also gives Rhode Island an advantage in retaining a workforce to improve its economy, said state Sen. Gayle Goldin, a Providence Democrat who introduced the paid family leave legislation in 2013.

"I've had people tell me they moved to Rhode Island and got jobs and when they realized we had the benefit on the books, they decided to stay," she said.

Candidates' proposals

Clinton's plan would guarantee 12 weeks of paid leave and cover about 67 percent of a person's salary, up to a certain cap.

Trump's plan, which his daughter Ivanka unveiled this month, would offer six weeks, but only to mothers who gave birth to the child. Unlike Clinton's plan or what the states provide, it would exclude men, adoptive parents and people caring for relatives who are seriously ill.

Clinton says she would pay for hers with higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, while Trump says he would pay for his by cutting unemployment insurance fraud.


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