When the bipartisan defense spending bill is signed into law this week, the U.S. will become the last rich country on earth to provide federally mandated paid family leave. While it only affects about 2 million government workers, this is a welcome, long-overdue step. And the real work is just beginning.
For nearly three decades, the Family and Medical Leave Act has given certain employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for birth or adoption, or addressing serious medical needs. Even this minimal baseline was tough to establish: The legislation was vetoed twice before getting passed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Detractors feared it would raise taxes and hurt businesses.
It makes sense that some bosses would bristle at the idea of shelling out paychecks to absent workers. But a growing body of research indicates that offering family leave doesn’t actually hurt the bottom line, and may even pay off in the long run. Just look at how things have played out in California. It’s one of a handful of states, including New Jersey and Rhode Island, that opted to offer its own paid family-leave program in the absence of a federal standard. More than 90% of companies surveyed in a 2011 study of California businesses reported “no noticeable effect” or a “positive effect” on profitability and performance as a result of the state law.