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Researcher Sees Gradual Movement On Issue Of Paid Parental Leave


A small chain of cafes in the Pacific Northwest called the Laughing Planet made news recently when the CEO announced his employees would get three months of fully paid parental leave, pointing out that it would be cheaper than training new workers. That's a parental benefit that restaurant workers almost never get. Jane Waldfogel is a professor of social work at Columbia University. She tracks paid parental leave programs around the world. Waldfogel says 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents is noteworthy in America.

JANE WALDFOGEL: In the U.S. context, it is very generous. In the world context, where most other countries offer an average of 10, 12 months or maybe more of paid parental leave, not so generous.

MONTAGNE: Well, other countries, for instance...

WALDFOGEL: Well, our neighbor to the north, Canada, used to have just six months of paid parental leave. And they've doubled that now to 12 months. We have a handful of states that have temporary disability insurance programs. But we only have three states where employees can claim for paid family leave, which is a broader category that includes fathers. It includes foster and adoptive parents, a serious illness or a seriously ill family member you have to care for.

MONTAGNE: One of those states is the very state that I am in, California. Tell us how it works in California.

WALDFOGEL: Employees pay in a little bit every week, every month. And if they have a qualifying event, they can claim leave. So new parents now can take up to six weeks of paid leave. And the research that I've done suggests that it's about double the length of paid leave - leave - that new mothers are taking. And it's also increased the length of time that new fathers are staying home.

MONTAGNE: The business community in the U.S., especially smaller businesses, are concerned that paid parental leave will hurt their bottom line. What, in fact, has been the case?

WALDFOGEL: Businesses have had two kinds of worries. One worry is, do you mean I'm going to have to pay people while they're not at work? 'Cause that's an expensive proposition. And that's not the case with these laws. In the current proposals - you know, what California enacted, New Jersey, Rhode Island, what's currently proposed at the federal level, what's under consideration in 18 other states - these are not mandates on employers. These are employee - for the most part - employee-funded programs that the states manage. And then, the states pay out to the employees. So there's actually no financial burden on employers.

MONTAGNE: The Laughing Planet example, these restaurants in the Northwest, in that case, the employer is paying. What do we know about that and how happy employers are when they do that?

WALDFOGEL: The fact that employers are choosing to do this voluntarily and are actually competing with each other to offer more generous leave - I mean, that's what we're seeing in the tech industry, right? Google, Yahoo, Facebook, offer at least as generous leave as their competitors. That says something, that they feel like it's worth it as a way of recruiting and retaining employees.

MONTAGNE: Is there a perfect length of maternity or paternity leave? How long would it be before, say, it becomes a negative?

WALDFOGEL: In some of the European models, honestly, you know, in the German model, if you have back-to-back children, you can be out, you know, for years. That's not what we're talking about for the United States. What we're talking about is six weeks or three months. From the research I've done, from a child's health and development perspective, I honestly think it would be best for children if mothers or fathers had the option to be out longer or to be able to come back on a part-time basis. But we're just talking about trying to move to six weeks or three months. And actually, there's legislation along those lines that's been filed in Congress, which would do exactly that using Social Security as a funding mechanism.

MONTAGNE: Does that have any chance of becoming reality?

WALDFOGEL: I think eventually it will. I think it's a matter of time. And I think probably using, piggybacking this on Social Security, is going to be our best option.

MONTAGNE: Jane Waldfogel is a professor of social work at Columbia University who studies paid parental leave programs in the U.S. and also around the world. Thank you very much.

WALDFOGEL: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.