Campus & Community

Sharing the cost of family leave

4 min read

Rappaport Institute conference explores the pros and a few cons of paid family leave

Paid family leave is where the rubber of two of America’s most cherished private institutions – the family and business – meets the road of public government.

And while the ride is smoother now than it was a few years ago, drivers had better buckle up and get comfortable for what could be a long trip.

Jump-starting a conversation that had stalled after Sept. 11, the Kennedy School’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and the Center for Women & Enterprise brought politicians, business leaders, and policy researchers together to discuss “The Future of Paid Family Leave in Massachusetts” at a conference last Wednesday (April 24).

“Private institutions like the family and the firm are building blocks for the rest of society,” said Rappaport Institute executive director Charles Euchner. “What do private entities need to succeed so that they can contribute to the social and the public good?”

Although the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act mandates unpaid leave with full protection of job status for a variety of family circumstances, including childbirth and adoption, many eligible employees are too financially constrained to take advantage of the act. Hardest hit are low-income women, who some say are just one sick child away from welfare.

Savings to society

Journalist Ann Crittenden, author of “The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is the Least Valued,” shared her impassioned support of paid family leave with the mostly female audience.

“We’re one of five countries on the face of the earth without paid parental leave,” she said, citing policies of European nations and Canada. “Comparable capitalist countries have found a way to do this without destroying business, without wrecking capitalism.”

While paid family leave primarily boosts families, women, and children, she said, businesses benefit too, from more productive female workers, fewer absences, less stress, and better retention.

Society as a whole would reap a savings, Crittenden argued, as women continued to work and avoided welfare. Currently, she said, approximately one in five low-income women with children is on welfare.

“It’s really a family values issue,” said Crittenden. “I don’t think any country on the face of the earth talks about family values more than America, and … no country on the face of the earth does less to really make family life possible.”

Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas Finneran presented a muted counterpoint to Crittenden’s argument, supporting the idea of family leave while promoting a business-friendly component. He called the economic health of the state’s business community “the oxygen” that fuels social health.

“If you layer another cost onto business … economic opportunity, which we hope to provide for one and all, will be foreclosed or limited in some fashion,” he said.

Finneran has proposed a bill that would provide voluntary tax credits to businesses that offer employees half of their weekly wage for up to six weeks following the birth or adoption of a child.

A balanced vision of utopia

Ever the politician, he recognized that his proposal might not satisfy all players.

“As with any public policy, you have the utopian vision, then you have the realistic responsibility of trying to find balance – practical balance,” he said. In Massachusetts, that balance will spread the cost of paid family leave among government, business, and employees themselves, he said.

In a lively question-and-answer session, Crittenden and Finneran took small steps toward each other, demonstrating an affinity for issues around child care for infants.

New England Cable News anchor Margie Reedy kept the conversation moving as she moderated a panel of researchers and business people who fielded questions from the audience, some of them politicians or representatives of gubernatorial candidates.

Jim Klocke, vice president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, portrayed business interests as moving closer to those of paid family leave advocates.

“As an organization, the chamber thinks that our workplace policies need to change the way our world is changing,” he said, voicing support for Finneran’s voluntary tax credit bill.

Panelists discussed several other paid leave proposals, including ones that would tap unemployment insurance or temporary disability insurance to ease the financial burden of family leave.

Rising to show off her pregnant form, Andrea Silbert, founder and CEO of co-sponsor Center for Women & Enterprise, declared, “I’ve got skin in the game.”

She reminded the audience of the challenging hiring environment of just two years ago.

“We have to think about women as the untapped source of human capital,” she said, arguing that family-friendly and business-friendly are not mutually exclusive.

Silbert’s closing remarks encouraged participants to maintain pressure on family leave, pursuing policies that would spread the cost among taxpayers, business owners, and families. “I will be phoning in from Massachusetts General Hospital to keep this issue moving from my maternity bed,” she said.