Last week, Senator Marco Rubio became the first candidate vying for the Republican nomination to put forth a paid family leave proposal—perhaps ever. When his fellow presidential candidates have talked about leave, it’s only been in general terms, and mostly to shoot down the idea of a government mandate.
So his attention on the issue, backed up by a proposal with some substance, is notable. But his plan would do little to change the country’s status quo. It could, in fact, make things even more unequal when it comes to who can get some compensated time off to recover and bond with a new baby and who has to scramble to afford unpaid time away from work.
Currently, the United States is nearly the only country that doesn’t require paid maternity leave and is left out of the group of 70 that require paid paternity leave. Rubio isn’t proposing to change that fact. His plan would give a 25 percent tax credit to companies that offer between four and twelve weeks of paid family leave to their employees. He says his goal is to expand access to paid leave—but he agrees with his fellow Republicans, like Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina, who argue the government shouldn’t tell businesses what to offer.
The lack of a blanket paid leave mandate has created a deeply unequal system where the better off, who are more likely to be able to weather an unpaid break from work, are more likely to get paid leave anyway. Among the lowest-paid 25 percent of American workers, just 5 percent are offered paid family leave. Among the highest-paid, however, more than 20 percent get that benefit.
The consequences for those who can’t afford unpaid leave are grim. A quarter of first-time mothers simply quit their jobs or are let go when they have a baby. People who take unpaid leave often borrow money or even go on public assistance to get by. Many women rush back to work within weeks of giving birth, risking their health and sanity.
The inequality doesn’t just exist between workers, but between workplaces. Every year, Working Mother magazine rates the best companies for working mothers, and today all of them offer paid maternity leave, while 90 percent offer paid paternity leave, a big change from 30 years ago when just five had maternity leave and none had a benefit for new fathers. Yet among all American employers, less than a quarter offers paid maternity and paternity leave.
This is why it’s so troubling when Fiorina points to Netflix, which recently announced a year of unlimited paid family leave for its salaried employees, as a sign that the private sector can tackle the issue on its own. Certainly such generous benefits exist at white-collar firms vying for top talent. But that’s not the reality for the overwhelming majority stuck with mediocre or even nonexistent offerings.
Rubio’s plan probably won’t change this landscape. It might entice some companies that are on the fence about offering paid leave to make the switch and get a nice tax break in the process. But what he’s proposed wouldn’t cover the cost of providing leave on its own. A company would only get about one dollar back in tax benefits for every four dollars it has to spend on replacement wages for parents out on leave. Certainly there are benefits companies can reap that may make up for that outlay—the most important being a reduction in turnover, particularly among women, something that can come with a big price tag—but those already exist and yet haven’t led to a widespread adoption of paid family leave. Companies that currently feel they can’t afford to offer it, as well as those that aren’t in an arms race for talent like those in the technology sector, will probably choose to stick with what they already provide.
The proposal favored by Democrats—including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley—would instead include wage replacement for all employees who need to take family leave. would instead include a mandate that all employers offer paid family leave. But it would also be a much better bargain. Businesses wouldn’t be on the hook to cover wages for employees who went on leave; instead, benefits would be paid out from a social insurance fund that employees pay into through a small payroll tax. Because the social insurance model is a better deal, those with less money to throw at benefits would more easily adopt it. And a nation-wide system would ensure that everyone could get the benefit, not just those at employers trying to attract the top-paid and most sought after employees.
Rubio’s plan offers a first glimpse of a bipartisan agreement that the current American approach to paid leave isn’t working. It’s just that he hasn’t given us enough to ensure that the system would actually change.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the paid leave proposal favored by Democrats would include a mandate that all employers offer paid family leave. The FAMILY Act would include wage replacement for all employees who need to take family leave.