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: The pandemic changed these business owners’ opinions about paid family leave

Paid family leave is a popular idea with the American public, and a new study says small businesses increasingly support the policy — especially if their employees have taken paid family leave during a pandemic that’s made balancing work and home duties harder than ever.

A new study looked at how the pandemic changed some employers’ attitudes on paid family leave, and it comes at a time when the fate of mandating paid leave in a massive social safety net spending bill is very much up for grabs.

By fall 2020, approximately 71% of New York and New Jersey small businesses said they backed paid family leave, up from nearly 62% one year earlier, according to a study from researchers at Columbia University, Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of Virginia. The study was circulated Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The share of businesses opposed to paid leave shrank from 20% to 10% in the 2019-2020 timeframe, a period when the pandemic put work-life balance to the test — for women especially — and Congress passed a coronavirus-related paid leave law.

The more employers used paid leave, the more they liked it, the researchers said, noting a 16% increase in support for paid leave among companies using paid leave provisions under state laws and the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

The researchers gauged the shifting views among nearly 550 employers with up to 99 employees.

In all likelihood, businesses were “recognizing the need that was always there and had become much more acute. That focused the mind on how important the protections for workers were,” said one of the authors, Christopher Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia.

It’s a need that may remain unfilled.

America is the only highly developed nation without a national paid family leave requirement. Roughly one-quarter of private sector workers and state and local workers have access to it through their employer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The $1.75 trillion Build Back Better spending bill’s inclusion of paid leave is a big question mark. In negotiations to lower the bill’s cost, Democratic lawmakers cut paid leave from the legislative proposal.

Now, four weeks of paid leave are back in the bill and it could go to a vote in the House of Representatives later this week. Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat from West Virginia and much-needed ‘yes’ vote for Senate passage, has said while he supports paid leave, he doesn’t think the current bill is the way to do it and wants to find a bipartisan way to create paid leave provisions.

There’s slim chance of paid leave getting into the final bill passing the Senate, said Ben Koltun, research director at Beacon Policy Advisors, a policy research firm advising institutional investors.

Congress will pass some the social safety net bill in some form because Manchin ultimately doesn’t want to be a blockade, Koltun said. “I think he’s driving a tough bargain. But he’s looking for a bargain. He’s looking for a deal here.”

When it comes to paid leave, Koltun noted Manchin may want to make the deal across the aisle with Republicans who have been supporting the idea, but with varying approaches to fund and shape the program.

Small businesses say they need ‘flexibility’

Some small business groups say lawmakers need to proceed with caution on paid leave because they need flexibility to manage their workforce in a tricky business climate when staffing is a major challenge.

Manchin may take the view “there’s a better paid leave final product and process that can be done in Congress,” Koltun said.

More than eight in 10 voters — including 96% of Democrats, 81% of independents and three quarters of Republicans — support paid leave, according to a spring poll released by Paid Leave for All Action, an advocacy group. The idea has been popular before the pandemic, with a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, for example, showing broad support.

Ruhm said the study’s findings challenge the idea that employers may balk at paid leave. “When you talk to small employers, they want to be supportive of employees,” he said. At the same time, it can sometimes be difficult for them to offer paid leave if competitors are not. “In many cases, they would like an even playing field,” Ruhm said.

In April, Ruhm and his co-authors released another study on the effects of New York’s paid leave laws. The policy ” imposed minimal costs on employers,” they said, looking at survey data from 2016 to 2019.

Though some polls suggest there’s already at least some small business support for paid leave, some small business organizations have sounded wary of the Build Back Better approach.

Earlier this month, the National Federation of Independent Business told lawmakers it had concerns about the House of Representatives’ paid leave provisions that had no exemptions for smaller businesses.

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 — which allowed workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new baby or adopted child — had exceptions for smaller businesses because lawmakers knew small businesses needed flexibility on how to manage their workforce, wrote Kevin Kuhlman, NFIB’s vice president of federal government relations.

During a recent NFIB member ballot, nine in 10 members said they should be exempt from any paid sick and family leave requirements, Kuhlman’s letter noted.

“Requiring small business participation in a federal paid family and medical leave program would take away the flexibility many small businesses need to be able to manage their workforce at a time when half of small business owners are struggling to fill open positions,” he wrote.

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