Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Paid Family Leave: The Lack of a National Policy Isn’t the Only Barrier

Paid family leave is back in the U.S. news again, this time with a proposal by Senator Mario Rubio called the Economic Security for New Parents Act, which would provide paid leave to parents who agree to delay taking social security benefits by an amount to offset the paid leave. I’m not going to get into the merits and controversies of this approach (for that, see this by the proposal’s originator, Kristin Shapiro, and this piece).

Rather, my key point is that simply offering a family leave policy does not automatically alleviate workers’ concerns about income loss or other potential negative consequences of taking a leave. So while new ideas about universal policies are important—and actually enacting policies would be even better!—we also need to better understand the factors that prevent workers from taking a leave, and ways to reduce these barriers.

So to think about the barriers to a leave, Tae-Youn Park (Vanderbilt), Eun-Suk Lee (KAIST), and I develop a four-part framework consisting of all A’s: availability, awareness, affordability, and assurance. These four elements reflect the key considerations for whether any worker takes many kinds of leave from work: 1) the policy needs to be available, 2) if available, the worker needs to be aware of it, 3) even if aware of an existing policy, the worker needs to believe he or she can afford a leave, and 4) even if affordable, the worker needs to have assurances against negative consequences that might result from taking a leave (e.g., a promotion going to someone else). We think this framework can help guide research into leave-taking barriers.

In a paper titled “What Do Unions Do for Mothers? Paid Maternity Leave Use and the Multifaceted Roles of Labor Unions,” the three of us focus specifically on the potential impact of labor unions. For starters, based on existing research on what unions do, it’s clear that unions have the potential to positively affect all four of these key steps (and not only in the United States). They can bargain for (better) leave policies; help spread awareness through newsletters, one-to-one interactions, and the like; make leaves more affordable through higher wages and better insurance coverage; and combat reprisals through bargaining, grievance procedures, and other means. But what happens in practice?

To find out, we turned to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97) which, importantly, is a nationally-representative sample. Due to some data peculiarities, we are only able to analyze women taking paid maternity leave, but future analyses of paternity leave taking would also be valuable. Our final data set has 27,472 observations from 4,108 female workers across a 15-year period. Ultimately we find that union-represented workers are at least 17 percent more likely to use paid maternity leave than comparable nonunion workers, and that unions facilitate this leave-taking through the availability, awareness, and affordability channels. We also find that mothers who take a paid maternity leave experience a post-leave penalty—specifically, their wage growth is slower when compared to those who did not take a leave. Surprisingly, we did not find that labor unions lessen this penalty, which would be one aspect of the assurance dimension.

At one level, this research is about what unions do with respect to the important issue of helping new parents take the amount of leave they deserve after a birth or adoption. In looking at the aggregate picture, they appear to be helping in some ways, with perhaps room for expanding their activities. What happens on a case-by-case basis, we cannot observe. But at a higher level, this research is about continuing to deepen our understanding of the barriers to parental leave taking, which can help with policy design when (hopefully!) a policy is (finally!) enacted in the United States.

Source: Tae-Youn Park, Eun-Suk Lee, and John W. Budd (forthcoming) "What Do Unions Do for Mothers? Paid Maternity Leave Use and the Multifaceted Roles of Labor Unions," ILR Review (https://doi.org/10.1177/0019793918820032).
Click here to read the full paper.

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