One of the measures President Joe Biden is trying to resurrect from his $2 trillion Build Back Better package is paid family leave, something widely supported by Americans.
Nine states offer paid family leave, as does Washington, D.C., which just announced it’s expanding its program.
Opposition to paid leave has often been rooted in the challenge it poses for businesses, particularly small ones. That calculus is changing.
Melissa Wirt runs an e-commerce business in Virginia with 45 employees. “If things go awry in the warehouse or if people go on maternity leave, our media buyer or our accountant, those employees are going to be in the warehouse picking orders,” she said.
But Wirt knows the benefits of having a parent-friendly workplace. Her business, Latched Mama, sells clothing for nursing mothers. She offers paid family leave.
“You’re really going to see rewards on the other side in terms of a different type of employee that comes back,” she said.
While not all small businesses are as focused on parents as Wirt’s, all face a certain cost-benefit analysis when it comes to paid family leave. And the pandemic has shifted the balance of how some businesses see these trade-offs, according to Jane Waldfogel at Columbia’s School of Social Work.
“We’re in a particular moment right now. They’re even more likely to be supportive now than they were in the past, because they’re coming out of this experience during COVID,” Waldfogel said.
Waldfogel co-authored a recent paper that found support for paid family leave during the pandemic jumped from 60% to 70% among small businesses in New York and New Jersey.
Both states offer the benefit. And during lockdowns and school closures, more employees had to take advantage it.
Now, employers of all sizes are increasingly facing pressure to provide more parental benefits themselves, said Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan.
“In a tight labor market, you see employers become quite creative in trying to think about ways to attract and keep people,” she said.
A federal paid leave policy would free employers up to compete on other benefits.