John Oliver, HBO’s version of Jon Stewart, decided to celebrate Mother’s Day by using his late night platform to argue for federal paid family leave in America. It was a compelling, heavy-handed report loaded with half-truths meant to support an ideologically beautiful, yet economically unfeasible concept. Based on my years administering FMLA in New Jersey, here is the list of Oliver’s myths that need to be debunked if we’re going to take the argument for paid family leave seriously.
1. Selena Allen, whose baby was born 6 weeks premature. Oliver presents her as only being able to take a total of 4 weeks off of work, which indicates that Oliver is oblivious to the disability period associated with giving birth. According to the Department of Labor, pregnancy is viewed as a temporary disability the 30 days prior and 30 days after birth. That post-birth time frame automatically increases for women who deliver via C-section. The disability period can always be extended in either direction with a doctor’s note. While this may be considered an unpaid leave by your employer, you are entitled to run your sick time concurrent to the leave, and you may also pursue temporary disability payments from your state or private disability insurer. Allen should never have returned to work the week following giving birth. Whether or not she was correctly informed of the law is not included in Oliver’s story.
2. Oliver argues for paternity leave by pointing out that Major League Baseball fans didn’t appreciate one player taking off 3 games to attend the birth of his child. What Oliver doesn’t mention is that fathers are just as eligible to take advantage of FMLA to bond with their newly born, foster or adoptive children. You do not need to physically give birth to be entitled to FMLA.
3. Oliver cites three states that have paid family leave provisions, New Jersey being one of them, as examples of how well paid family leave works. The reality in New Jersey is that paid family leave is funded via a payroll tax. Businesses are not paying for the family leave, you are. Oliver also neglects to mention that in New Jersey, only 6 of the 12 weeks can be reimbursed and that the reimbursement rate is capped at a maximum weekly amount of roughly $595. When employees are in financial straits, they are not taking advantage of the full 6 weeks of reimbursable leave, let alone the full 12 weeks of FMLA to which they are entitled. Paid family leave in New Jersey is not exactly the glorious concept Oliver makes it out to be.
4. Oliver notes Congressional opposition to FMLA in terms of businesses suffering, comparing it to statistics showing that most businesses haven’t economically suffered. However, what he neglects to point out is the stress placed on the shoulders of other workers to maintain productivity. In terms of public education, long-term substitutes are hired to replace teachers on leave. Long-term substitutes aren’t always given a unionized rate of pay, benefits, or job protections afforded a full-time teacher. Moreover, student productivity is always the highest risk factor in the equation, especially when it comes to special education classrooms.
5. Whether it is in terms of taxes or stress, the effect of paid family leave is never on the business, it is on you. Oliver cites Minnesotan legislators who voted against the paid family leave act as being “anti-woman” without pointing out that the major concern surrounding the act was the additional tax burden it would put on employees already squeezed by Obamacare regulations and minimum wage requirements.
6. It’s great to talk about paid family leave in terms of ideological righteousness. It’s quite another to discuss it in terms of economic reality. What Oliver fails to mention is the fact that nations with the highest amount of paid family leave are also some of the most economically socialized nations on the planet, and therefore the closest to bankruptcy. Germany, France and Greece are only a few of the many “paid family leave” countries to force austerity measures on their socialized populations over the past 5 years. Apparently the Minnesotans are right: Those taxes really do add up.
Oliver ends his sketch with a clever little commercial telling moms to “get back to work.” His joke is our cultural reality. Instead of adding yet another tax burden to a working mom’s shoulders, we should reconsider our cultural demand that women must pursue a full time career outside the home and create feasible employment alternatives for those who do have to work to support their families. Throwing tax dollars at a problem won’t make it go away. Brainstorming creative solutions will.