The Real Cost-Benefit Analysis of Paid Leave

What is the cost of a father dying alone? Who knows the toll when chemo is what you do on your lunch hour? How do we measure the loss of a career to care for a loved one with a disability? What’s the price tag on a child’s terror while waiting in her hospital bed for a parent to finish work and drop exhausted into the chair beside her?

As momentum grows for a national policy to guarantee paid family and medical leave, opponents keep raising the issue of costs. The U.S. may be the only developed nation in the world with no paid leave policy, yet conservative legislators resist an evidence-based, self-sustaining program with cries that “there is no free lunch.”

The expertise needed in this discussion is that of the true accountants: working people and their families who bear the cost right now of failure to act on paid family and medical leave. They want to make visible the most important bottom line—the price of inaction on the hearts and well-being of families across this nation.

These experts can, of course, also recite the economic costs of the status quo. They know that those deprived of their job or paychecks for taking time to heal or provide care lose wages—a total of $22.5 billion per year. More importantly, they know what that means in missed car payments or utility shut-offs or skipped meals or rationed insulin. They know the pinch of worrying about eviction or foreclosure. They have a PhD in how to manage when there’s too much month at the end of the money.

The evidence is clear: paid leave would be a boost to the economy, add $500 billion in the Gross Domestic Product by keeping women in the workforce who now are pushed out because they honor a father or mother or cherish a partner in sickness as in health. That’s money our nation could invest in child care and smaller class sizes, universal health care, affordable housing and a safe planet.

Those most impacted by the lack of paid family and medical leave want a program like the FAMILY Act, a social insurance fund similar to those in effect in a number of states that is self-sustaining and will survive no matter who sits in the White House or in Congress. They want a plan that makes leave affordable and lasts long enough for someone to heal or provide the care needed. They want the security of knowing their job will be there when they get back to work. And they want a fund that covers everyone, no matter where they live or work, what kind of job they do, who they care for or who they love. 

Voters have demonstrated they’re willing to contribute to this fund along with their employers; they prefer it to be an earned benefit, something they own that no one can take away. And they appreciate the many elected officials in the states and Congress, from both parties, who have been listening to them. They’re hopeful the House of Representatives will pass the FAMILY Act this session.

Here’s what working families don’t want: proposals that parade as “paid family leave” but merely move money from one pocket to another, like the bill that would provide some income for parents of a new child by asking workers to take cuts in their future Social Security, or another that borrows against their child care tax credit. Such plans exclude 75 percent of those needing paid time to care for their own health or that of a loved one.

And they don’t want “comp time” plans that force workers to spend more time away from family in order to get time to care for that family. Legislation that weakens existing social programs and offers too little money, with no guarantee of a job to come back to, aren’t too small a step—they’re a step in the wrong direction, one that perpetuates racial and gender inequality.

Working people need what paid family and medical leave can deliver: reduced infant and maternal mortality; fewer racial and gender disparities in health, pay and assets; greater job retention; lower spending on public assistance; more seniors independent and able to age in place; better outcomes for local businesses; higher rates of men involved in caregiving.

But the results that matter most will be those we experience up close: the joy of seeing our baby’s first smile, the comfort of holding our dying parent’s hand and the delight of knowing our family counts—no matter who we’ve chosen to love.

About and

Ellen Bravo is strategic consultant to Family Values @ Work, a network of 27 state coalitions working for paid sick and safe days, family and medical leave insurance and other policies that value families at work.
Wendy Chun-Hoon serves the director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau. She is the former executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions in 27 states working for policies like paid family and medical leave.