Certainly, unlimited days off would appeal to most of us, considering what life can throw our way. But not all employers will offer such a benefit any time soon, and it’s by no means clear that this experimental practice could work across the board.
On the other hand, a law guaranteeing partial pay for a defined period for workers to care for seriously ill family members or new babies — paid family leave — is a basic benefit proven effective and affordable in other countries. Adopting paid family leave in the United States would go a long way toward helping the modern work force reconcile work and family obligations.
Take a woman I interviewed for a 2011 report who adopted a baby girl born four months premature, weighing 1.5 pounds at birth. The new mother had saved paid vacation and sick leave for two years before the adoption, and managed to take seven weeks off. The baby was on oxygen and a cardiac monitor for months, had reflux, and had to be held upright at all times to avoid choking. The working mom rationed her vacation time down to the hour to coordinate tag-team caregiving with her partner, describing the situation as a “narrowing funnel of extreme pressure.” New York, where she lives, does not have a state family leave insurance program, and she could not afford unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
The idea of a company providing unlimited paid “vacation” time would no doubt sound appealing to this woman (if you consider providing life-saving care to a premature baby to be “vacation”). But there are lots of unanswered questions about the effectiveness of such a practice.
Meanwhile, plenty of evidence shows that a law to guarantee paid family leave to care for seriously ill family members or new babies would benefit employers, workers and the economy. Far from an obscure perk, paid family leave is guaranteed in some form (especially for new mothers) in every industrialized nation in the world except the United States, and is typically funded through social insurance systems.
Economists and social scientists have studied the various forms of caregiving leave for decades and have found positive impacts on productivity, staff turnover, public health and economic competitiveness. In the U.S., the two states that have family leave insurance programs — California and New Jersey — have shown good results for employers and employees.
Unlimited paid vacation may be a novelty worthy of debate. But paid family leave should be a basic workplace benefit, guaranteed under law.
Janet Walsh is deputy women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch and the author of “Failing Its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the U.S.” She is on Twitter.