Why Paid Parental Leave Makes Sense

David Blankenhorn, New York Times, 4/7/1987

Should companies be required by law to allow parents up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave to care for newly born or seriously ill children? As Congress prepares to vote on the Family and Medical Leave Act, opinion polls show that most Americans favor the idea. With a majority of mothers in the workforce, including more than half of all new mothers, leaves of absence offer many parents a new opportunity to reach an old-fashioned goal: time with young children... Stronger families benefit the entire society. Raising children is not merely a series of private concerns but also a social imperative that should be supported by policies such as parental leave.

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Subjects: Family, Family policy

More by: David Blankenhorn

Should companies be required by law to allow parents up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave to care for newly born or seriously ill children? As Congress prepares to vote on the Family and Medical Leave Act, opinion polls show that most Americans favor the idea. With a majority of mothers in the workforce, including more than half of all new mothers, leaves of absence offer many parents a new opportunity to reach an old-fashioned goal: time with young children.

Though it might seem hard to oppose such a pro-family measure, the United States Chamber of Commerce has found a way. Parental leave may be a fine idea, the Chamber argues, but it would cost too much - $16.2 billion a year - in lost productivity, the expense of hiring temporary replacements and the cost of maintaining health insurance for those on leave.

Why should the rest of us have to spend billions to provide benefits for a few? If the parental leave measure is rejected by Congress, this logic will have killed it. Proponents of the bill, therefore, must confront it squarely and factually.

One obvious point ignored by the Chamber is that most of the costs are borne by the parents themselves. After all, they lose weeks or months of salary just when newborn or sick children are boosting family expenses. Parental leave extends job security, but it does not provide something for nothing.

Calling parental leave a ''mandated benefit,'' as the Chamber insists on doing, confuses the issue. For employees, nothing is ''mandated''; parental leave is an option for those who choose it and accept its costs. Neither is it a ''benefit'' so much as a minimum labor standard.

Further, the Chamber greatly overstates the alleged costs to business for providing leaves of absence. Nearly 60 percent of the estimated $16.2 billion cost results from increased payroll expenses, according to the Chamber's estimates. The Chamber asserts that companies affected by parental leave will turn to employment agencies, whose hefty fees make temporary workers more costly than permanent ones.

But in the real world, the opposite happens. Many firms now hire temporaries directly, avoiding employment agency fees. According to the Bureau of National Affairs, a private research and publishing concern in Washington, most companies find temporaries less expensive than regular employees. More important, most companies hire few temporaries or none at all. They simply rearrange work assignments whenever an employee is on leave. In some instances, parental leave actually reduces costs.

Much of the rest of the Chamber's estimate - more than $5.5 billion -is based on its projection of reduced productivity. But its assumptions are faulty. The Chamber assumes that companies are fully productive under current practices and that every new father and mother, given the opportunity, would take an 18-week leave. Existing programs, however, prove that not everyone will choose leave. Fathers, for example, are 10 times less likely to use it than mothers. Nor would everyone take the full 18 weeks.

More important, many new parents, especially mothers, quit their jobs rather than resume work immediately. Most eventually return but at a new job with a different employer. This type of turnover, ignored by the Chamber of Commerce, is costly for everyone. Hiring and training a new permanent employee can cost nearly the equivalent of a year's salary, according to an analysis in Training magazine. Parental leave would both reduce turnover and improve morale, thus increasing productivity rather than reducing it.

Oddly, a recent study by the Chamber confirms the view that parental leave can make companies more productive. A survey of companies offering parental leave found that more than 60 percent cited ''recruitment and retention'' of good employees as the main reason for the program. As demographers predict tighter labor markets, and even labor shortages, for the 1990's, many employers already recognize parental leave as a valuable policy that enhances the corporate bottom line.

The Chamber searches out costs but ignores benefits that reduce or reverse those costs. It questions the price of doing something but fails to evaluate the price of doing nothing.

Finally, consider the family's bottom line. A grim litany of statistics, from divorce to child poverty to teen-age suicide, tells us that families are in trouble - in part because of policies that make it harder, rather than easier, to both earn a living and do right by their children.

Here the bottom line is simple. Working parents are more that a special interest, pleading for privileges in a zero-sum game. Stronger families benefit the entire society. Raising children is not merely a series of private concerns but also a social imperative that should be supported by policies such as parental leave. That's why a lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce recently complained that ''our usual allies think it's a family issue.'' It is.

This article originally appeared here.

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