Paid family leave is good for workers and businesses

Research shows investing in families benefits everyone

A mother holds a baby while working at her laptop. (Getty Images)

With Labor Day weekend behind us, it’s time for most of us to get back to work. But this November, Coloradans will get to decide if new parents can be paid to stay home.

For most nations, the plethora of scientific evidence has already provided a resounding “yes” to paid family leave. Across multiple disciplines, positive outcomes of increased parent-infant time include secure parent-child attachments, improved outcomes for vulnerable and preterm infants, reduction of infant, neonatal and under-5 mortality rates and even economic improvements for women. While most studies have focused on maternal leave outcomes, similar positive outcomes have recently been echoed across genders, highlighting the need for both parents to be involved in early child care. For example, high paternal-infant contact has been shown to increase oxytocin levels in new dads, eliciting stronger paternal attachments than in fathers with low paternal-infant contact. In combination with economic benefits such as increased employee retention, productivity and morale, paid family leave has become a clear boon to both workers and businesses. 

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Yet despite robust evidence and strong bipartisan support, the United States remains one of only eight countries in the United Nations which denies paid family leave to all citizens. Even worse, of the 41 nations which comprise the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Union, a Pew Research summary found that America is the only high-income, industrialized nation to deny mandatory paid family leave to all workers. 

While a slight increase in access will be seen as federal employees are granted access this October, many U.S. workers remain uncovered. In response, some businesses and states have taken up the slack. At tech giants like Google and Apple, paid maternity leave has become commonplace. In California and Washington, D.C., paid family leave has increased to eight weeks. Meanwhile, Rhode Island permits up to four weeks, and other states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut allow up to 12 weeks — soon to be joined by New Jersey and New York in 2021. Many more states have no mandate or policy for paid family leave, creating a piecemeal effect where zip codes once again determine our public health outcomes. In Colorado, we are one of the many states without such coverage for new parents.

Proposition 118

12-week paid family and medical leave insurance program

Four extra weeks in the case of pregnancy or childbirth complications

• Parents of adoptive and foster care children eligible

• Available for both mothers and fathers

In addition to overall policy, specifics matter. Policies abroad show that while the 40 other nations have a minimum requirement of paid parental leave for roughly two months, in many cases this duration exclusively applies to paid maternal leave. Regarding paid paternal leave, a regrettable majority of nations offer an average of only two weeks or less. This lack of equity between maternal and paternal leave continues to perpetuate further disparities between genders in parent-child bonding, as well as gender gaps in household roles, income and more. While the United States continues to lag in implementing paid family leave, early adopters both internationally and nationally have afforded Colorado policymakers the opportunity to identify what works best, such as the need to close the gap between maternal and paternal leave.

Building on these lessons, Colorado’s Proposition 118 is extremely comprehensive and would make us the ninth state to enact paid family leave. As written, Prop 118 seeks to create a 12-week paid family and medical leave insurance program, with up to an additional four weeks in the case of pregnancy or childbirth complications. It broadens the scope of eligibility to include parents of adoptive and foster care children, as well as expanding the definition of family member — a frequent source of frustration in early adopter policies. Both mothers and fathers are eligible, and provisions have also been included for survivors of domestic violence and military families. Altogether, these expansions serve to make the proposed initiative one of the strongest paid family leave initiatives in the nation, and as written, could even outperform many international programs.

Of note to Colorado’s many entrepreneurs, state-run family leave programs have been shown to have neutral to positive impact on small businesses. Positive impacts reported often include increased competitiveness, a reduction in business costs and even gains in business owners accessing paid leave. Given small businesses in Colorado employ over 1 million people, the added economic benefits are notable.

While it is likely that the ballot initiative will require updates by the state legislature over time to refine revenue and payouts, Initiative 118 creates a positive first step for Colorado families and businesses.