Five Lessons From the Paid Leave Policy Trenches

Vicki Shabo is a Senior Fellow for Paid Leave Policy and Strategy in New America’s Better Life Lab.

How to design easy-to-use and accessible programs that support working parents, caregivers and patients.

Imagine you’ve spent the evening holding your father’s hand in the hospital after he came out of surgery. You live in one of the five states that currently have paid family and medical leave programs, and you’re desperate to apply for the benefits. But your employer and the hospital’s staff aren’t able to help you access the program. 

Around midnight, you start an application on your state’s online portal for gaining paid leave benefits, but the website form includes a question you don’t understand. In the morning, you try calling the number provided on the site. No one answers. Later in the day a friend tells you that she wanted to apply for state-provided paid family leave benefits when her daughter was born, but she could have lost her job. 

While your dad naps, you head back online, trying to understand whether your job is protected. You learn there are indeed gaps state and federal laws that leave some workers vulnerable to dismissal if they choose to go on paid leave. You’re tired and frustrated, and now your father wakes up and needs you. Understanding the confusing world of paid leave policy must wait for another day.

Creating valuable new public programs and getting people to use them are not the same thing. That’s a key distinction teams in New America’s Public Interest Technology program and Better Life Lab recently observed during a “sprint” in one of the states with a paid family and medical leave programs. 

These programs are now or will soon be in place in eight states and the District of Columbia, building on the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid time away from their jobs. An estimated 36 million private-sector workers will soon have access to paid leave benefits through a state program. That is cause for celebration. I’m proud to have helped policymakers, advocates and businesses design and implement new paid leave programs over the past decade. And I am a big believer in the power of these public programs to accomplish good things for workers, families and businesses in these states.

But the political process inevitably involves compromises. We must ensure those compromises don’t result in policies that make programs disproportionately unattractive or unavailable to vulnerable people. Here’s the problem we identified during the sprint: In some states, paid leave programs offer workers replacement income without job protections. But what about FMLA, you ask? That law covers only about 60 percent of the workforce. Which is why right now, some Americans risk losing their job by accessing paid leave benefits. 

Unsurprisingly, many people don’t think the risk is worth taking. User interviews conducted during our sprint showed just how devastating this inconsistency can be—a finding consistent with other research on barriers to state paid leave access. So we wrote a letter to Congress urging the expansion of FMLA job protections and their complete alignment with any future federal paid leave program. (Sidenote: I’m now working with colleagues at the federal level to develop an equitable, sustainable and accessible national paid family and medical leave program.)

We learned other important lessons from the sprint too. The following five lessons can help states and their stakeholders ensure that the workers and families most in need of paid leave support can actually access it.

  1. Personalized public outreach is essential.

 Without explicit, targeted outreach, the people most in need of paid leave benefits may never learn about the program. Our sprint revealed that there are specific kinds of outreach messages likely to be most effective. State agencies, community-based organizations and advocates should create public education materials that start from the perspective of a tired mom-to-be or her partner, an adult child caring for a parent or any working person caring for a loved one, or a worker with his or her own health issue. So don’t start with program names: start with the circumstances in which workers find themselves.

     2. User-centric applications drive program success. 

Applications for paid leave must include questions that beneficiaries know how to answer. It is common sense that an easy-to-understand application promotes user satisfaction and avoids confusion and frustration. During user-centered interviews, the New America sprint team identified application trouble spots and tested clearer questions. 

Clear applications also spur positive policy feedback. Two examples of tangible benefits include less burden on agency staff as they process applications and determine eligibility, and faster receipt of the first benefit check. To the extent that better applications mean faster payments, program utilization will improve. The sprint also revealed that uncertainty around payment timing was a barrier to utilization. As one person explained to the team, “My husband wanted to [take bonding leave] but he couldn’t because we didn’t know when we’d get the checks. It’s not worth the risk. That’s our house.” 

     3. Employer education must be a cornerstone of outreach efforts. 

Most people get information about state paid leave programs and FMLA from employers—but this information is often wrong or incomplete. Employers may even be unaware of paid benefits available to their workers. As one interviewee explained in frustration, “I wish my HR person gave me a packet. She gave me no direction at all. Why even have an HR person?” 

If employers have obligations to complete forms or provide information to state agencies, they may not know or have resources to fulfill their obligations in a timely way. Giving employers the information they need could help reduce confusion and the resources that employers, workers and the agency expend to determine whether workers are able to get the paid leave they need.

     4. Different agencies must coordinate efforts.  

Often multiple state agencies are tasked with handling job protection and paid leave programs, respectively. For potential beneficiaries, this is confusing—and the danger is that workers and employers will go to the wrong door with a question about a program. 

For example, one interviewee explained, “I knew that I was able to get time off, but I wasn’t exactly sure the amount of time with [paid] family leave, and the federal FMLA and everything. It was a little bit anxiety-provoking figuring that out. I didn’t want to take too long because I didn’t want my employer…saying you know what, you took too much time.” State administrators, advocates and community-based organizations should recognize the potential for frustration, and create materials and help lines that harmonize information.

   5. Data analysis can reveal how the population is being served and identify strategies to boost utilization.

Creating a “dashboard” for the types of incoming applications and their processing time can provide valuable information to both the agency and the public about the efficiency and responsiveness of a state’s paid leave program. 

In addition, analyzing the demographic and geographic distribution of applicants relative to their share of the state’s workforce can help show where barriers exist and where better or different outreach is needed. Expecting and new mothers tend to make the most use of state paid leave programs; fathers and family caregivers typically underutilize these programs. Low-middle and middle-income people are more likely to use programs that the very poor and the very wealthy. Data analysis can clearly identify these patterns, setting the stage for community-based organizations, hospital systems and businesses to help correct disparities. 

During the last three years alone, there’s been an explosion in innovation in designing and implementing state paid leave programs. User-centered research, data analysis and partnerships with community-based stakeholders are all critically important for fulfilling their promise. Creating well-used paid leave programs will give more workers the economic stability they deserve, proving that public programs can support the needs of families at critically important moments in their lives.