A right to paid leave?

Back in May, I spent a post exploring the question of why liberals claimed a right to healthcare in a way that they haven’t claimed for other similar basic human needs. Extrapolating from the push to make healthcare a legislated right, I identified three criteria for when momentum for new social rights builds: (A) the right addresses an essential human need; (B) the right implicates interests that cut across all income levels; and (C) the right causes minimal economic disruption.

Because healthcare satisfied these criteria, it was the “easiest” social right to recognize first. Healthcare wasn’t special, I wrote: “liberals do support positive rights to other similar needs. FDR’s New Deal vision remains the unfinished business of American liberals, intending to tick off his proposed social rights one political mobilization at a time. Under this piecemeal approach, health care now serves as a precedent, with food, shelter, and others to follow in the future.”

For those watching closely, the White House appears to be laying the groundwork for this precise strategy to push for paid family and sick leave for more American workers. In the run-up to health reform, President Obama and other liberals repeatedly asserted that health care is a right and not a privilege. That rhetoric helped build momentum for legislative reform. It argued that reform was a moral imperative, and that we simply had to bear the costs of reform to provide a basic human entitlement.

Building on the success of health reform, the White House is foreshadowing the next liberal movement in social policy reform. Earlier this month, White House advisor Valerie Jarrett published a LinkedIn post arguing that “Paid Leave Is a Worker’s Right, Not a Privilege.” Jarrett explained the emotional ravishment that workers faced when forced to choose between missing work and staying home with a sick child or a newborn. She also pointed out the economic gains for businesses offering paid leave by attracting and retaining superior talent.

How does paid leave stack up under my three-part test? First, it certainly addresses a basic human need. Reproduction, nurturing youth, and resting while ill all fit squarely within the lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. On the threshold does-this-feel-like-a-basic-right smell test, paid leave seems to pass muster.

Second, paid leave is undoubtedly an issue that brings the middle-class into the political coalition for broader access. Vast swaths of average American families lack paid sick leave or paid family leave. Like with pre-reform health insurance, these ostensible rights are currently provided (or not) at the whim of our employers’ HR decisions. When the middle-class is invested in social policy proposal, reform becomes significantly more likely.

Where paid leave might stumble is on the economic disruption question. Rights involve redistribution, as we must transfer resources to provide the right to those who lacked it under the status quo. Under one conception of guaranteed paid leave, the costs of extending this right are borne entirely by employers, who would need to fund employee time-off and cope with staffing uncertainty.

Jarrett attempts to preemptively rebut these concerns by pointing out the benefits of paid leave for employers. But there’s another version of paid leave that avoids the political hurdles of regulatory mandates on employers altogether. We could fund paid leave as a public social insurance program, circumventing an employer-provided regime by compensating sick workers and new parents directly. Doing so would absolve firms of the administrative burden of running these complex insurance schemes.

Moreover, there’s little reason to think that guaranteed paid leave would burden employers any more than guaranteed health insurance has. So under any formulation of paid leave, the economic disruption might be more minimal than first thought — minimal enough to make passage realistic.

Jarrett’s claim to a right to paid leave thus fits sensibly within the framework for new social rights. Liberals are following the model of healthcare reform, seizing the moral high ground of asserting “X is a right, not a privilege.” So while guaranteed paid leave from work might not be a right we find in our Constitution or — for now — any statute, it rings true as a deeper, moral right fundamental to the human experience.


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