Opinion

Support NC families with paid family leave

Kim Swanson plays with her son Sammy, 13 months, and daughter Marley, 3, after reading books in their living room. Swanson lost her job after Marley was born because her employer didn’t meet the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act. She supports efforts to require paid parental leave, but not if jobs aren’t protected.
Kim Swanson plays with her son Sammy, 13 months, and daughter Marley, 3, after reading books in their living room. Swanson lost her job after Marley was born because her employer didn’t meet the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act. She supports efforts to require paid parental leave, but not if jobs aren’t protected. jwall@newsobserver.com

In North Carolina, employers are not required to offer paid leave to workers when new children are born or adopted, or when serious personal or family health issues inevitably arise.

In fact, only 12 percent of our state’s workers benefit from paid family leave. And those eligible to take unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act typically do not do so because they simply can’t afford it.

But the good news is we don’t have to rely on the federal government to enact a universal paid family leave program. We can support workers and families in North Carolina with a statewide program.

Several other states have already enacted their own initiatives to provide paid leave benefits, in response to federal inaction on the issue. California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island have done so, and Massachusetts, Washington and Washington, D.C., are now developing programs.

Two demographic trends in North Carolina highlight the need for paid family leave: a relatively high infant mortality rate and growth in the elderly population. North Carolina ranks 41st in the country for infant deaths, with an infant mortality rate of 7.3 deaths per 1,000 births — well above the national average of 5.8 and higher than nations such as Russia and Chile. And in less than 15 years, the share of the state’s population age 65 and older will grow by nearly 40 percent, meaning many more seniors will need family help to stay in their homes.

In our recently released report, we show that paid family leave insurance could help North Carolina save both lives and money.

Paid family leave insurance (PFLI) is a type of paid family leave that is publicly provided and operates statewide. PFLI programs allow employees — and, in some states, employers — to pay an insurance premium and gain access to a fund from which they can draw for qualified leave purposes.

Our study examined the possibilities of instituting a statewide PFLI program in North Carolina through two different policy options. In one option, workers could receive 55 percent of their wages for up to eight weeks, and the maximum benefit would be $486 per week. In the other option, workers could receive 80 percent of their wages for up to 12 weeks, and the maximum benefit would be $875 per week. In both options, workers would be able to take paid leave in order to care for a newborn, ill relative or to address their own serious illness. The two options varied in provisions, and therefore in costs and benefits.

In evaluating these options, we found that both proposals would reduce infant mortality, nursing home costs and use of state government assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. For the proposal offering 12 weeks of paid leave, we project that an additional 26 infant lives would be saved each year.

We also estimate that an additional 205 elderly individuals would be kept out of nursing home care each year, cutting costs by between $16.7 million and $18.6 million, depending on the room type occupied.

Importantly, North Carolina would see these benefits at a weekly cost of only $3.50-$4.60 per worker. For the cost of one latte a week, North Carolina workers would no longer be faced with the impossible decision of choosing between work and family responsibilities.

We understand that employers are concerned about paid family leave; when workers take leave, businesses need to adjust work flow and cover tasks and responsibilities. However, our research shows that paid family leave could make it more likely for working moms to return to work after having a baby. It could even save businesses money in the long run, by shifting the risk and responsibility for the costs of employees’ inevitable life events from individual businesses to a large employee pool.

The message of our new findings is that if a PFLI program were available in North Carolina, a substantial share of our citizens would have resources available to help care for themselves and their families, which in turn would improve the well-being and health for many in our state.

Anna Gassman-Pines is an associate professor of public policy and psychology and neuroscience at Duke University; Liz Ananat is an associate professor in Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

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