Paid leave programs are gaining momentum, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), in part due to grants from its Women’s Bureau.
The bureau has in recent years awarded several million dollars to state and local governments to study the development and implementation of family and medical leave programs. One of the main purposes of these grants is to build momentum for state and local programs and, according to DOL, this goal is being met.
“Every one of the grantees reported that receiving a Paid Leave Analysis grant, engaging stakeholders, and completing the research process increased support for paid leave in their state,” DOL explained in a report on the results of the 2014 grants.
Massachusetts, Montana, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia received grants in 2014 and, in reporting their findings, offered suggestions for future grantees, as well as information for states and other municipalities that may be considering paid leave programs. The suggestions also may help inform the national conversation about leave, DOL said.
Policy Elements to Consider
The grantees identified several policy elements that governments should consider when designing a paid family and medical leave program.
Implementing paid leave without an existing temporary disability insurance (TDI) infrastructure. The only three states with paid family leave—California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—have implemented their programs by expanding on an existing TDI infrastructure. (Washington has a program but it has not yet been implemented.) Grantees noted that it will be challenging to implement programs in states without an existing infrastructure. (According to DOL, only five states have a TDI structure to work with.)
Determining a funding mechanism. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island’s paid leave programs are funded by employee contributions. New York’s, which begins in 2018, will do the same. Many state proposals for paid family and medical leave include contributions from both employers and employees, DOL said, adding that funding decisions can determine whether a program receives support from the public, businesses, and policymakers.
Establishing the length of leave. Governments will have to determine how many weeks of leave they will offer. The states with existing programs offer 4 to 6 weeks; when New York’s is fully phased in, it will offer 12. Some current proposals suggest 12 or more weeks, DOL said.
Creating eligibility criteria. States and municipalities also will have to decide on eligibility criteria. Will programs have the same criteria as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)? Will part-time workers or those employed at small businesses be covered? “Many low-wage or vulnerable workers … work part-time or part-year and would benefit from more generous eligibility parameters,” DOL noted.
Setting amount of wage replacement. Governments will need to determine the amount of wage replacement that will be made available to employees. Current rates range from 55 to 66% of weekly pay, subject to a cap. “The amount of wage replacement offered impacts how much leave workers can afford to take,” the department pointed out. During its research project, Rhode Island found that most employees will shorten their leave or take no leave when wages are replaced at only 60%. Some leave proposals suggest a higher replacement rate for low-income workers.
Ensuring job protection. According to DOL, Rhode Island is the only state that offers job protection to workers taking leave, like that provided by the FMLA. The state, however, determined during its research that job-protection was a little-known element of the program.
Defining ‘family’. When designing programs, state and local governments will have to carefully consider how they want to define “family.” Will it be broader than the FMLA’s allowance for leave to care for a spouse, parent, or child? Rhode Island, for example, also allows leave to care for a domestic partner, parent-in-law, or grandparent. Stakeholders may want to consider the benefits of a more expansive definition of family, DOL said.
Employing neutral framing and language. The states told DOL that they would recommend gender-neutral language for leave to care for a new baby. Calling parental leave “bonding leave” can give the impression that it is just for women, the department said. “The grantees also suggest using a frame that emphasizes that paid family and medical leave has benefits to business as well and that it allows people to be good workers and effective caregivers.”
Evaluating program awareness and effectiveness. Governments also should consider including assessment tools into their programs. Assessment is important to fine-tuning a new program once it is rolled out, DOL said. “Even in states that have had paid family leave for years, there is room to increase awareness of the program.”
The 2016 state recipients are Hawaii, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. Three local governments received grants as well: Denver, Colorado; Franklin County, Ohio; and Madison, Wisconsin. (See State and local governments win grants to study paid leave.)