Gillian Lester

My topic for today is a recent article I published that offers a qualified defense of paid family leave. I propose a social insurance scheme, funded mainly by payroll taxes, but also ideally also through some general revenues, that would provide workers who take family leaves with about 70% pre-leave wages for a maximum of 3-4 months per year.

The Family and Medical Leave Act, which covers about half of American workers, gives the right to take 12 weeks of leave per year to deal with family and personal medical needs. The FMLA, however, guarantees only job protection, and not wage replacement. The issue of making wage replacement available for family leaves -- in other words, leaves to care for an ill child, partner or elder, or to care for a newborn infant-- has returned to the public agenda in the last couple of years, at least at the state level, with late Clinton administration efforts to fund it through UI, bills in a number of state assemblies, and the recent enactment of a paid family leave law in California that came into effect last July.

Currently, most American workers depend on family savings to support themselves during a family or medical leave. Maternity leave -- a medical benefit for mothers in the immediate post-birth period -- is the most widely available benefit, and even that is provided by only about 40% of employers. Workers who do receive wage replacement from their employer tend to have higher earnings and education than those who do not. Among those who depend on savings, sizeable numbers report that they decline to take needed leaves,1 or cut short their time off2 because they feel they can't afford it.

In my paper I talk about a range of market failures that might explain why private markets don't supply more paid leave. Ultimately, though, I posit that society may want more paid leave than private markets would supply even if we could correct the most obvious market failures. The heart of the paper, then, is a direct confrontation of the normative basis on which we could justify a state subsidy to make paid leave more widely available, and more particularly, fund the program in a way that would tax some citizens who don't actually use benefits.

SO -- what are my normative commitments?

My basic commitment is to greater gender equality in the distribution of paid employment and caregiving responsibilities. Women assume a significantly larger burden of family care than men, whether they also do paid market work or not. There is a significant correlation between the allocation of caregiving burdens and the lower wages and career opportunities of women as compared with men.

This matters for two reasons: it matters partly because participation and status in the paid labor economy is an important indicator of economic and social power in our society. It also matters, I argue, because paid labor force attachment has the potential to reduce women's economic dependency on men and on the state, and this in turn may enhance women's autonomy and physical and emotional well-being.

Let me raise two objectives that will help situate my contribution within the existing feminist academic discourse on work/family conflict.

First, there's a question of whether my scheme is fair to stay-at-home caregivers. Some feminists would argue that my position implicitly denigrates women's powerful contribution to the economy through the domestic sphere. My response here is I don't denigrate the value of family caregiving, but I do want to surface the practical reality that different forms of contribution command different kinds of social and economic rewards.

Others will accuse me of illiberal perfectionism saying that I fehtishize work over other conceptions of the good life. Here my response is that I am less interested in advocating self-fulfillment from paid employment than I am in advocating women's economic independence, or more particularly, their practical access to work as a lever of economic independence. Facially neutral provision of subsidies, then, itself represents a choice that implicitly defends the status quo.

Another objection comes from those like Professor Vicki Schultz of Yale Law School who strongly advocate women's workforce participation, but believe that workplace accommodations such as paid leave will actually undermine labor market equality by making it easier for women to move in and out of the workforce, which in turn may reinforce stereotypes about women's lack of commitment to paid employment. Perhaps instead of paid leave we should opt for policies such as high quality publicly provided daycare, or increased subsidies for hiring professional caregivers in the home. First, let me be clear that I strongly support the improvement of external institutions, like childcare, for facilitating work-family balance. I don't think paid leave can do the work of changing the status quo without significant help from other policy reforms, such as childcare, tax reform, and vigorous enforcement of antidiscrimination laws. At the same, time, I don't think that something like childcare can be a substitute for paid leave because a significant group of workers has an inflexible demand to be able to give at least some care, especially in those acute moments of having an infant, or a seriously ill child or spouse. Externally-available care is a necessary complement, but not a substitute, to the particular need that paid leave satisfies.

At the same time, I take very seriously concerns about the hazards that paid leave could deepen gendered segmentation of labor markets, and I try to address these concerns in the details of program design. More specifically, these concerns should push us towards (1) financing benefits in a way that stems the risk of shifting the costs of provision to women; (2) reasonably strict eligibility rules (several months of work in the previous year, at at least 60% full-time hours), (3) benefits that are not overly generous (70% of earnings, with a floor and ceiling to avoid severe regressivity), and (4) a serious effort to build in incentives for men to take leave.

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1About 10%.
2About 40%.

Download the intro to Gillian Lester's article, A Defense of Paid Family Leave PDF

Download the full version of A Defense of Paid Family Leave PDF