Is Paid Family Leave Really Worth It?

“You’ll get up to 2/3rds of your salary for 6 of the 12 weeks of family leave.”

“No I won’t. I’ll get something like $500 a week, max. Read the fine print.”

I was one week into my new position as a human resources manager for a New Jersey school district. The information overload was overwhelming and at the height of hiring season I was struggling to stay afloat. Fine print wasn’t a high priority on my list, but it should have been, especially when it came to explaining family leave to yet another pregnant teacher.

“It’s okay,” she quickly added, “your predecessor told me the same thing before my last baby, but when the checks started coming I clarified that the stipend is capped, just like unemployment.”

Knowing I’d be sitting in her chair in a few years’ time, I decided to do my research. And it turns out that state-funded family leave in Jersey isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it’s pretty much useless, which is probably why one expecting mother of twins broke down in tears in my office. By the time most teachers get pregnant they’re averaging $60,000 a year (which equates to just about keeping your head above water in this state). The family leave stipend wouldn’t even cover half of their weekly paycheck. And that stipend would only be coming for half of their leave period.

One thing I didn’t realize until I had a baby of my own was how quickly 12 weeks fly by. Having left my full-time position to be a stay-at-home mother, I mentally calculated when I’d have to “return to work” had I stayed at my old job. Factoring in post-birth disability time, I’d be going back just as my son started sleeping longer stretches at night and waking up to the world around him. Talk about a ripoff.

But is a longer, fully paid family leave period the answer? Not always. For private corporations like Spotify and Netflix, which either offer generous leave packages or flexible work time options, it’s a win-win for both the company and its employees. Government-provided paid leave endeavors often backfire. Female employees are paid less and all employees are taxed more in order to pay for the program. If the federal government implements a family leave mandate, generous packages proffered by competitive private companies will most likely cease to exist altogether.

The reality of paid family leave is that someone has to pay, and that someone is inevitably going to be you. The question is, would you rather pool your financial resources to help pay for everyone else’s children, or would you rather have the option to start saving for your own? Employers push pension programs onto young employees with an emphasis on funding retirements 40 plus years down the road. Why not proffer packages that allow employees to save up for life changes that are just around the corner? And why not take advantage of technology to create flexible work schedules for the parents who need it?

In the end, my husband and I decided to save up both our money and his paid time off to make way for baby. As a result. we started our family on the cusp of the later side of our baby-making years. Unlike many of my former colleagues, I am fortunate enough to stay at home with my son. While some teachers I worked with did, most returned after their family leave period ended. Some, including the new mother of twins, didn’t stay home at all.