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Parental leave is too important to leave up to employers

A recent poll conducted by YouGov in partnership with the Huffington Post shows strong majority support for requiring employers to offer paid sick leave and paid maternity leave, and support by a smaller majority for paid paternity leave:

This is timely given the Obama administration's recent attention to leave issues, Rebecca Traister's recent piece on parental leave, and the fact that I'll be going on leave for four weeks starting in early March when my wife and I are expecting a baby boy. But as encouraging as it is to see the humane sentiments of the American public revealed in this poll, I have to warn — it's a trap.

Parental leave is much too important to leave up to employers.

A regulatory leave mandate isn't a terrible idea, per se, but it's likely to land the nation in a rut from which it's difficult to escape and that prevents us from ascending to where we really need to go — a properly-funded universal government social insurance program to support new parents.

The problem with employer mandates is that they're never truly universal. Employer mandates invariably end up with some form of small business exemption, to recognize that compliance issues that are easy for Walmart may be impossible for a family store. Yet according to BLS data 28 percent of American jobs are at firms with fewer than 50 employees. Raise the cap up to 100 employees, and you're at 35 percent. And of course there's always the problem of exemptions for part-timers. And the independent contractors. And the question of how long you need to be in a job full-time until you qualify for the benefits. The existing (unpaid) Family and Medical Leave Act is full of these kind of eligibility holes. And of course if you make companies start offering paid leave, not only will many people be left uncovered but companies will struggle mightily to cram more and more workers into the loophole categories.

And of course, it's lower-skilled, lower-paid workers with the least bargaining power on the market who are most likely to be left out in a coverage mandate.

The risk is that you end up replicating the situation that prevailed in health insurance from World War II until the Obama administration. A scenario in which a rickety form of social provision manages to cover just enough people to undermine political support for replacing it with a more robust system.

What America really needs is to bite the bullet and recognize that parental leave is a social responsibility, not an employer-specific one. It should be run like unemployment insurance or social security, with everyone paying into the system with taxes that finance a universal benefits scheme. That's probably not going to poll as well as the idea of making employers pay. But at the end of the day, it's all one big pool of money — if employers' costs go up, they'll find a way to take it out of employees' paychecks in the long run. The difference is that a properly funded scheme can cover everyone, while a regulatory scheme will only cover some — while possibly undermining political support for a future universal program.