How AI could help families get paid leave benefits
Dec 18, 2023

How AI could help families get paid leave benefits

For parents who live in states that offer paid family leave, it can be so difficult to navigate those programs that many give up without receiving the benefit. Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code and Moms First, says a new AI chatbot can clear the way.

The United States is one of just a handful of countries without a national paid family leave program. As a result, offering those benefits has been left up to individual states and employers.

Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., currently offer paid family leave programs, but they’re not always easy to navigate. Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani says our complicated, patchwork system means workers lose an average of $10,000 in wages by taking that leave without being paid.

Saujani recently launched the advocacy group Moms First, which is out with an artificial intelligence tool called It was built to help people in New York navigate the paid leave system in their state.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke to her about the chatbot’s potential to help low-income people access the benefits they are entitled to. She envisions that, maybe one day, generative AI could reduce income inequality.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Reshma Saujani: If you’re lucky to live in New York, you have paid leave, but it’s still an uphill battle to climb. The government website doesn’t do a great job of customer service. It makes it hard for you to know whether you’re eligible for benefits and to know how much you are eligible for. The average woman in New York can’t just walk into her boss’ office and ask for help because oftentimes, when your boss finds out you’re pregnant, you’re fired. Many moms in New York that need these benefits are in low-wage jobs, and they don’t know who to ask to get the answers that they need. I’m hoping that will help with that.

Lily Jamali: Tell me about how this tool would solve some of the issues that you’re laying out.

Saujani: Moms First launched with early support from OpenAI, and the goal was to help parents in New York get the benefits they need to care for their families. Our AI tool answers these questions quickly. It helps you understand, am I eligible for paid leave? How much time off and how much money can I get? And it gives you an action plan to get your benefits. So, is like the perfect use case for generative AI to help the most vulnerable communities put money in their pockets. For so many parents in New York, that $10,000 in wages that you’re going to get because now you’ve figured out how to access those benefits, that’s life-changing for a family.

Jamali: And how exactly did this chatbot come to be?

Saujani: As the founder of Girls Who Code, I sit in a lot of conversations right now about AI, and oftentimes, the conversations are about how do we prevent kids from cheating on tests? Or how do we make sure that AI doesn’t end the world, right? And as I thought about this tool from a technology perspective and from an activist perspective, because I wear both of those hats, I saw the potential for generative AI to just do customer service really well, to help access benefits for the poorest of communities. In the case of paid leave, it’s critically important. In New York, they say, less than 25% of those that are eligible for paid leave take advantage of that benefit. There are 13 states in our nation that offer paid leave, including D.C. I’ve been talking to the different governors and departments of labor, and most of those states have a really low uptake of benefits.

Jamali: Do we know why that is?

Saujani: Different states have different reasons and we’re going to be digging into that in the next phase of this innovation. But as we did focus groups with moms, it’s just hard to navigate for different reasons of complexity. “Do I qualify for disability? How much does my employer give me? Do I qualify for state benefits? I work part-time, I’ve changed employers two times.” I just recently experienced this with loan forgiveness. I had 20 minutes to figure out whether I qualified and I couldn’t figure it out, so I gave up. And so, a lot of people just, quite frankly, give up.

From a movement perspective, why that’s a challenge for us is because as I’m trying to get Washington to put paid leave on the list of the top three things that they should put into the budget, they look at the states and they say, “But it’s available there and no one’s using it, so people probably just don’t really want it.” And so it’s about the uptake of benefit. We saw this happen with the child tax credit. I live in New York City and I’m seeing this happen with universal pre-K.

Jamali: In terms of people not taking advantage of universal pre-K where you are?

Saujani: Correct. Now the mayor is cutting pre-K seats and saying people don’t want it. It’s not that people don’t want it; they can’t figure out how to get it. Those are two very different things.

The interesting thing here is that, shockingly, is one of the first-ever public-sector use cases of generative AI in the world. Definitely the first unpaid leave and child care use case. The conversation that we’re engaging in about generative AI, understandably, is about safety. We’re stuck kind of in this safety conversation, which hasn’t allowed us to really move into this innovation conversation or into the conversation of how to prepare citizens for this technology that’s coming whether we like it or not. And it’s going to change everything, whether we like it or not. How do we make sure that at the end of the day, AI will be only as good as we are?

Jamali: You’re using technology to facilitate something that is very human — the chance to bond with a new child or care for a loved one. Have you had to make the case that AI is the right tool to help make those things happen?

Saujani: I felt when we launched that I would have gotten a lot of blowback, and it was quite the opposite. I actually think that this tool made people feel better about AI. What if, actually, generative AI will close the income inequality gap because it will be used in cases like this or for [food stamps] or for Medicare? Where we do a better job of getting benefits to those who qualify and who need them, which puts money in their pocket, which then closes the inequality gap? And I hope cities, governments, countries everywhere start exploring that.

Jamali: Right now, this chatbot can only help people in the state of New York as they’re trying to navigate the state’s paid leave program. What do expansion plans look like for Where do you go from here?

Saujani: Yeah, we easily could just launch in the next 13 states in the next couple of weeks. We could do a build to do that.

Jamali: The 13 states that have these programs in place already, but don’t have the tech overlay that you would bring to it?

Saujani: Correct. We’re exploring what the best next expansion plan is. Do we pick a handful of states and work closely with the Department of Labor to basically measure the impact of generative AI in the increase of people applying for benefits? You want to be able to measure whether the pain points that we’re solving for with this tool are the pain points that people are facing. So, part of this too will hopefully inspire a conversation of why do we make it so damn hard? And why do we have so much distrust? If we want to put money in the hands of families, how do we make it easier? I think hopefully we will engage in a more civic conversation, a policy conversation about how this technology has exposed the inequity and the unfairness that we put into the process, which I bet, in many ways, exacerbates our distrust of government.

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