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Commentary

How paid leave could equalize pay for women

Apr 14, 2015

Recently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said paid leave in the state would have to wait. The priority issue, he stated, was women’s equality, including ways to get at equal pay. We hear this same refrain, this false choice, presented all the time.

As national women leaders told the governor, “Pitting paid family leave against an agenda for women’s equality is like saying we can’t build bridges because we need to build roads. In fact, the lack of paid family leave is a key contributor to women’s lower pay and inequality. The glass ceiling is held in place by thick maternal walls.”

Despite changes in America’s workplaces, women still have primary responsibility for care giving. And the lack in compensation for time to care costs women hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime.

In a nation that is supposed to value families and personal responsibility, being a good parent or following doctor’s orders affects your ability to stay employed, to advance, to build assets or even to pay your bills. Lose a job for staying home with a sick child and it may be harder to get the next one. Take a little time to care for your dying father and you may find yourself in bankruptcy court – and that can affect your credit rating and your ability to get hired at the next job. Take a few years to raise young children and your next starting pay – and all the lifetime of raises based on that pay – may take a hit from which you’ll never recover.

Some argue that women would get equal pay with men if they didn’t take breaks. Having a baby may be a joy – but it’s not a break. Studies show that women who experience an interruption in employment do experience a decrease in wages – a reflection of the notion that they’ve taken a “break” and lowered their value by “not working.”

Many new moms who wind up out of a job would be delighted to go back to the one they had — but their employer prevents it. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits firing someone for being pregnant, but it does not require that employers hold the job open until that person heals from childbirth. The Family and Medical Leave Act does include that job protection, but it leaves out 40% of the workforce. At the time, when they need a steady income the most, too many moms risk losing their jobs when they have a child.

But there is good news, including a clear path forward with tangible policy solutions. The drop in income is less likely to happen when women have access to paid family leave. Researchers Houser and Vartanian found evidence that paid family leave boosts the chance that women will return to the workforce and receive pay increases once they do.

An analysis of the impact of California’s paid leave program found that paid family leave increases a woman’s attachment to the firm that she works in, as well as increasing the number of hours that she works after returning to the job.

In short, common sense policies like a family leave insurance fund not only strengthen families and lower turnover but also help lessen the gender wage gap. That’s why Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro have re-introduced a federal bill, the Family Act, to create such a fund. In addition to California, Rhode Island and New Jersey have paid family leave programs, and more states are working toward building their own programs – hopefully with the help of competitive grants the Department of Labor has included in its budget.

But we need more than paid family leave to close the gender pay gap. Women are nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers. Guaranteeing a living wage and equal pay are critical; ensuring that workers can earn paid sick days would help stop income and job loss that impacts women’s earnings when they need to take a day off work to recover from an illness or care for a sick child.

We’ll never solve the problem of women’s lower – and often really low – pay until we also ensure that women and men have access to affordable time for caregiving. It’s not about either or; it’s about both.

Ellen Bravo is the Executive Director of Family Values @ Work, a nonpartisan network of coalitions in 21 states helping spur family-friendly workplace policies, such as paid sick days and affordable family leave.

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