Most Americans support paid family and medical leave and tend to agree that employers, rather than government should bear the cost. But consensus falls apart when it comes to details like who needs the benefit most and who should pay for it.
Those are among the findings of a new Pew Research Center report, which documents greater support for paid maternity leave (82 percent) than paid paternity leave (69 percent). The report also notes strong support for paid leave when workers have a serious medical issue (85 percent), but less support for paid leave to help care for a sick family member (67 percent).
“Part of what we learned is just the complexity of the issue,” said Juliana Horowitz, associate director of research for Pew and one of the study’s authors.
She said it wasn’t hard to find agreement that paid family leave is a positive thing. “Americans think the overall impact on families and individuals and the economy would be mostly positive. The disagreement really comes on how to provide it, who should provide it and who should be eligible for it. It’s not dissimilar from the policy debate happening in our country.”
Expanding family leave, however, is not a high priority on the list of issues Congress and the president should tackle, compared to other issues like fighting terrorism or improving the economy, according to the survey.
Family leave policies have been a hot topic in the last year. During the months leading up to the presidential election, both major party candidates addressed it in their campaigns.
Then-GOP nominee Donald Trump said he’d support six weeks of paid maternity leave for women who gave birth. Since the election, his daughter has talked about the importance of family leave, as well. And in Congress, Senate Democrats have reintroduced their Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, while Republicans are said to be readying a bill to address family leave.
It’s an issue of more than passing interest to working women like Leigh Gibson and Heidi Thompson, who each had babies recently.
Gibson, of South Jordan, Utah, said she feels pretty lucky. When she gave birth to her second child, a girl who is now 3 months old, her employer, Intrepid PR, provided her with four weeks of paid maternity leave. Combined with accrued paid vacation time, she was able to take two months off. Her husband Bobby had time off, too, though much less of it.
“I think that everyone should have at least a few weeks to stay home and really connect with the baby,” said Gibson. “You can’t recreate that time. And women are in a vulnerable state right after childbirth.”
Leigh Gibson dresses her baby Reagan at her home in South Jordan, Utah, on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. A new Pew Research Center survey finds that most Americans like the idea of paid leave, but the discussion gets strained when it comes to the details, particularly who pays for it and who gets it. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Thompson, of Hyrum in Cache County, has six kids, including twin girls born two years ago. She works at Utah State University. She was entitled to take the time available to her under the traditional family medical leave law, but was sick early in the pregnancy and had to use some of the time then. She managed to take about eight weeks off after the girls were born, but none of the time was paid. And her husband Ryan, a professional photographer, is self-employed, which means no paid leave, but he had some scheduling flexibility.
The time off was important to her not just for bonding, but for healing, Thompson said. “I had good deliveries and healthy pregnancies, but you’re still recovering.” She was also tired all the time because of the babies’ sleep schedule. “Thankfully, I was usually leaving my children with my husband when I went back to work. We juggled back and forth.”
But while Thompson supports paid family leave, as a small business co-owner with her husband, she also thinks about how hard it would be for small companies to pay for it. “But it really is a critical time with your child to get some sort of routine down,” she added.
Money and philosophy
Politics didn't matter much when it came to favoring paid leave, according to the Pew report, but there were partisan divides on who should pay for the benefit. Pew found that majorities of both Democrats and Republicans who say workers should have access to paid family and medical leave think employers should cover the cost. Democrats express more support for government-paid leave than do Republicans. Here's the biggest partisan divide: A majority of Democrats say the government should mandate employers provide it, while a majority of Republicans say employers should be able to decide.
The report is based on a pair of surveys taken in November and December, right after the national election. One survey asked roughly 2,000 adults questions, while the other targeted a specific group of nearly 6,000 adults, those who within the past two years had either taken family leave or who didn’t have access to it when they needed it.
Of those who took some leave, nearly two-thirds had some pay during their time off, most of it from accrued paid time off, such as vacation or sick leave, and not from family leave.
The report also noted differences based on income. For example, the study said that low-income workers were far less likely to have access to any paid time off.
“We find among leave takers with incomes above $75,000 that about 60 percent said they got full pay while on leave. For those with incomes under $30,000, most got no pay at all in that time. That’s a big key difference,” said Horowitz.
Just 13 percent of those who took leave had family or medical leave benefits paid by their employer. Horowitz said that particular finding is consistent with the compensation survey the federal government gives employers.
The report said those in lower income categories faced tough decisions. Sometimes they relied on public assistance to cover lost wages and they also said they had to forego needed or desired time off because they simply could not afford to do so.
Among other highlights in the survey:
• 56 percent of those who took parental leave said they went back to work sooner than they were required to or wanted to, most often because they needed an income.
• More than 7 in 10 say “it’s equally important for babies to bond with both parents.” But most agree men are more likely to be pressured to get back to work soon after a baby is born. Among leave-takers, mothers average 11 weeks’ leave after giving birth or adopting a baby; men average one week off.
• Young adults are more supportive of paid leave than older adults.
• 85 percent say if the government decides to provide paid family and medical leave, it should be available to all workers, not just low-income workers. And 73 percent say any government-funded parental leave should be available to both fathers and mothers.
The 2016 American Family Survey, an annual nationally representative survey conducted by the Deseret News and Brigham Young University, also asked about paid and unpaid family leave choices.
The survey, which was released last fall, asked if the government should require employers to provide leave and found 54 percent of adults said yes to paid leave, 14 percent said yes to unpaid leave, 19 percent said no to any mandated leave and the remaining 13 percent chose “don’t know.”
That survey found liberals more supportive of requiring paid leave (79 percent) than were conservatives (35 percent) or moderates (55 percent). Still, when the choice included both paid and unpaid leave, a majority of conservatives were in favor, too. The AFS also noted that more women liked requiring paid leave than men (58 percent to 50 percent).
There were also racial differences in the level of support for paid leave: 64 percent of blacks, 61 percent of Hispanics and 51 percent of whites favored it. Respondents favored leave paid for by employers, rather than the government, just as in the new Pew Research Center survey, and they were divided on whether any mandate should apply to small employers or just larger employers.