Paid family leave is finally gaining steam in the United States. President Obama and the Democratic presidential candidates universally embrace the idea. And while a conservative Congress may stymie federal action for years, states from New York to Colorado to Oregon are moving toward implementing their own family leave insurance systems, building on the success of policies already in place in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
In New York, Governor Cuomo has proposed a program that would allow all employees to take up to 12 weeks of leave and be paid a portion of their regular wages. New York’s program would be funded by employee payroll contributions starting at 70 cents a week, eventually increasing to $1.40 weekly. Polls show overwhelming public support for the proposal, including strong backing among Republicans.
Among a small minority, an unfounded objection continues to surface: why should I pay for my co-worker to spend time with her new baby? I don’t have children or plan to have any. Why should I shell out even $1.40 a week for someone else’s benefit?
Setting aside the unabashed self-centeredness of this argument—the willingness to disregard, for example, the substantial health benefits of paid leave for parents and the next generation of Americans—how can this objection be addressed?
In part, the objection rests on the misconception that paid leave can be used exclusively for bonding with a baby. In fact, in New York and most other state and federal proposals, paid leave can also be used by workers caring for family members who are injured or ill. That’s why the AARP—not primarily known as a child welfare organization—has endorsed the proposal and mobilized its 2.6 million New York members to in support.
To the paid leave dissenter I’d say: maybe you aren’t expecting a baby now. But if you have an aging parent who may someday need your support or a spouse who might require care to recuperate from a sudden illness, you will benefit from paid leave.
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If your sister is hit by a truck, paid family leave will help you afford the time off work to be at her side in the hospital and through physical therapy—even if she lives in another state.
And if you’re the one hit by a freak accident or illness? Paid family leave may enable a loved one to be there for you.
In some ways, the arguments against paying for paid family leave mirror the claims of “young invincibles” reluctant to pay for health insurance because they were convinced they wouldn’t need medical care in the foreseeable future.
The reality is that none of us are invincible. The world of work is structured as if we are truly independent and isolated, appearing on the job fully capable, without a need to give or receive care from cradle to grave. For decades, this fiction was sustained by the unpaid care of women: mothers, wives, and daughters nurturing and supporting workers and families. Now that women are fully a part of the workforce, and American families rely on their incomes to make ends meet, we can’t continue pretending to live in a universe where working people never need to provide care or be cared for.
We all relied on care as infants and children and more than likely will need someone to care for us again before we die. If someone ever cared for you, you have a stake in paid family leave.