Paid Leave: A No-Brainer for Businesses and a Lifesaver for Workers
By Liz Ben-Ishai
Could it be that workers whose employers offer leave benefits actually end up getting sick less often because they are happier? Senator Al Franken (D-MN), tongue firmly in cheek, proposed this “radical” idea at a hearing on paid leave held by the Senate Health Economic Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee’s Subcommittee on Children and Families. Franken’s comments echo all the evidence: paid leave is a no-brainer that benefits both workers and employers. Unfortunately, far too many workers still lack paid leave, including paid sick days and paid family and medical leave.
The hearing, convened by Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC), drew attention to the dire circumstances facing U.S. workers who need time away from work to welcome a new child, care for a sick loved one, or recover from serious illness. Witnesses testified to the importance of paid leave for families’ economic security, the value to employers of offering such programs, and the growing body of evidence that shows the effectiveness of existing paid leave programs. The critical importance of this issue was evidenced by the attendance of seven senators: Casey (D-PA), Franken (D-MN), Hagan (D-NC), Harkin (D-IA), Murphy (D-CT), Murray (D-WA), and Warren (D-MA).
Those who oppose paid leave policies often express concern about their effect on businesses. However, testimony from Kevin Trapani, CEO and president of The Redwoods Group, and Maryella Gockel, flexibility leader at Ernst & Young LLP, demonstrates that such worries are misguided. Indeed, for these employers, as well as for businesses in the states that have passed paid family leave insurance laws (California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey), there has been no evidence of what witness Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women & Families called the “parade of horribles”—a litany of negative business implications predicted by critics.
Trapani, whose business offers generous leave benefits, described the importance of meeting his employees’ needs so that they can best perform important work for clients and the community. Paid leave has been crucial to the well-being of many Redwoods employees, said Trapani. For example, one employee took paid leave to care for his sick father, who lives out of town. He told Trapani, “My dad may not have survived if I hadn’t been here.” And at Redwoods, paid leave doesn’t just benefit employees grappling with grave personal matters; it pays dividends for the company’s bottom line. Redwood’s turnover rate for the past 10 years is only 5 percent, generating major cost savings and increased productivity from a loyal workforce.
Ernst & Young’s Gockel explained how paid leave and other benefits have nearly closed the gap in retention rates between male and female employees at her company; in the mid-90s, she said, women were leaving the company at a much faster rate than men. Beyond the impact of such disparities on women’s ability to advance in their careers, Gockel noted that high rates of turnover are costly. For a mid-level worker, said Gockel, it costs between 1.5 and two times the worker’s annual salary to hire and train a replacement.
Jeannine Sato’s experience, recounted at the hearing, brings the retention and turnover numbers to life. In a previous job, when Sato had her first child, she found that her employer was not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) because it had multiple offices that were more than 75 miles apart, meaning the number of employees at each location could not be combined for FMLA eligibility purposes. This obscure provision meant that Sato was not eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the law—and her employer was unwilling to accommodate her needs. As the family breadwinner, she had no choice but to go back to work just six weeks after giving birth. Soon, she was looking for a new job. “Even a big raise couldn’t keep me there,” she said. Sure enough, Sato had found new employment less than a year later. Workers like Sato offer a lesson to employers about the consequences of not providing paid leave: while it may prevent a valued employee’s temporary absence, it could cause you to lose them permanently.
While some employers haven’t caught on yet, there are many who are aware of the importance of providing paid leave. Unfortunately, despite many high-road employers taking action, others are not in a position to do so because of the financial burden of extended paid leaves. However, legislation introduced in Congress last December would help such well-intentioned employers to do right by their workers. Using small contributions from employers and employees, the Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMILY) Act would create a trust fund for workers to draw on when they need to take leave. Such a social insurance program is appealing to workers and employers alike, as evidenced by support from many small businesses and a growing group of diverse business leaders from across the country.