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Analysis | When do US workers get paid time off? Try 2035


Most wealthy countries give workers paid time off when they become parents, fall ill or have to care for loved ones. It’s one of the great no-brainers of public policy: it benefits newborns, families and the entire economy.

The US is a notable exception. It could reap huge gains by establishing a national paid family leave program. Unfortunately, the best chance to do so probably won’t come until 2035.

Often associated with maternity leave, paid time off does much more: it allows anyone with an acute health problem — their own or a family member’s — to take the time they need without losing income or job. Mothers who have it are healthier, work more and earn more. Their families are less likely to experience food insecurity or poverty. Their children are better off, from childhood to at least primary school. Companies report improved productivity, performance, revenue and morale. The consequences for public health and labor force participation make the whole country more prosperous.

In the US, however, only a minority of states offer paid time off. Benefits vary widely, exacerbating inequality. And any state-funded program will be in constant jeopardy, given legislators’ race to the bottom to attract lower-tax companies.

The best solution would be a federal program co-administered with Social Security. Employees, employers, or both, would contribute payroll taxes to a trust fund, and employees taking leave would receive benefits based on past earnings. Administrative costs would be very low, and universal coverage would spread protection and risk across as wide a pool of employees (including independent contractors) as possible.

Such an expansion of the Social Security portfolio would not be unprecedented. The program was similarly expanded in 1939 to add benefits for the children and spouses of deceased workers; in 1956 to create a program for workers who became disabled; and in 1965 to create a health insurance program for the elderly, Medicare.

The problem is that Social Security is facing its own crisis. The trust fund, the surplus saved to cover the retirement of the baby boom generation, will run out in 2035. than 70 million recipients – and likely trigger an immediate recession, along with skyrocketing old-age poverty.

Averting that dire outcome will be a politically charged task, requiring Congress to agree to a combination of tax increases and benefit reforms to ensure the long-term viability of Social Security. Lawmakers are unlikely to touch the program until absolutely necessary, meaning any major change — including paid family time off — will have to wait until 2035.

The longer Congress kicks Social Security, the longer a program that could greatly benefit millions of Americans will get kicked with it.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

• Layoffs often make companies worse off: Sarah Green Carmichael

• Progressivism defeats populism, but does not celebrate: Niall Ferguson

• America chooses to keep children in poverty: Kathryn Edwards

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Kathryn Anne Edwards is a labor economist and independent policy advisor.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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