Oregon this month became the fourth state to pass a bill requiring that companies give workers paid sick days to care for themselves or family members.
Chipotle said this month that it would begin offering hourly workers paid sick and vacation days, joining McDonald’s, Microsoft and other companies that have recently given paid leave to more workers.
And in a speech meant to preview her presidential campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton put paid leave at the center of her platform. No one, she said, should have “to choose between keeping a paycheck and caring for a new baby or a sick relative.”
Long a pet Democratic cause that seemed hopelessly far-fetched, paid leave suddenly seems less so. With pay for most workers still growing sluggishly – as it has been for most of the last 15 years – political leaders are searching for policies that can lift middle-class living standards. Companies, for their part, are becoming more aggressive in trying to retain workers as the unemployment rate has fallen below 6 percent.
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“More broadly in the country, obviously there’s been more of a discussion about income inequality, wages and benefits,” said Bradford L. Smith, general counsel of Microsoft, which said in March it would require many of its contract workers to receive 15 paid sick and vacation days. “In this area of paid time off, we’ve concluded that it’s not just good for people, but good for business.”
Advocates say they see an opening for a federal policy. “We’ve seen a dramatic shift in the last 12 months,” said Sarah Jane Glynn, director of women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress. “For things that seemed a long shot then, the landscape looks completely different now.” As recently as one year ago, Clinton said that while she thought paid leave was “unfinished business,” she did not think it was time for a federal law because “I don’t think, politically, we could get it now.”
Proponents generally fight for two types of paid leave: sick leave, for when employees or their children are temporarily ill, and family leave, for when employees need to care for a baby or a seriously ill family member. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans support both. Eighty-five percent are in favor of requiring employers to offer paid sick leave, and 80 percent support paid family leave, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.
The United States is the only industrialized country that doesn’t provide workers with any sort of paid leave as part of government policy. The Family and Medical Leave Act, which President Bill Clinton signed on his 17th day in office in 1993, gives about half of workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a serious health condition, a birth or an ailing family member.
Now that a majority of women work, research suggests that the lack of leave policies hurts aspects of the U.S. economy, especially by reducing the chances that women will continue working when faced with a new family situation. Low-income women, in particular, are less likely to work at jobs that offer leave policies and more likely to fall into poverty after a birth or illness.
But researchers also stress that more leave is not always better. In some countries where new mothers receive generous benefits, women are paid less or sidelined into less promising careers.
Paid leave now seems most likely to follow a political path similar to the one that minimum-wage increases and preschool expansions have taken in recent years. With most Republicans in Congress opposed to new leave laws, the biggest changes will probably occur at the state and local level, including in some Republican-led states.
Oregon, Philadelphia and Emeryville, Calif., have all passed paid sick-leave policies this year, and Montgomery County, Md., is expected to soon. Last year, 11 states and cities did so, up from only two in 2011. (Eleven other states, including Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia, have gone the other direction, banning cities from enacting paid sick leave.)
Three states – California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – offer paid family leave, and several cities, including Boston and Seattle this year, have begun offering parental leave to city employees.
“We always knew that we need national standards, but historically in our country, workplace changes happen first at the state or local level,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of groups pushing for paid leave.
Thirty-five percent of American workers get no paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those whose earnings are in the bottom quartile, 66 percent get none. For paid family leave, 87 percent of workers and 95 percent of the lowest quartile of earners get none.
Businesses, including Facebook and Johnson & Johnson, have also recently started policies to give certain workers paid time off or have expanded existing policies.
Economists say that the key to devising the best leave policies is in the details. Making employers pay for the leave – as opposed to spreading the cost across employees or taxpayers – can have the unintended consequence of lowering wages, for example. And maternity leaves of more than nine months can result in fewer women reaching senior positions.
Perhaps most important, researchers say, is designing policies so that both men and women use them.
“When you have a system that’s very heavily stacked in favor of moms taking extended leave and dads not, you run into this problem of disincentivizing the hiring of women,” said Glynn, from the Center for American Progress. Based on the political realities and the policies that have been created in the United States so far, however, it seems unlikely that a national paid leave policy would be in danger of being too generous.