Wednesday 11 April 2012

Parental leave and benefits

Put yourself in the place of an employer faced with two excellent and similarly qualified candidates for a position. You'd be very happy with either. But one, a young women, comes with maternity leave risk. If she decides to have a child, you will bear costs of worsening productivity over the course of the pregnancy despite her best efforts, costs of finding a temp worker to cover her position while she is on maternity leave, and the uncertainty of whether she will indeed return when leave concludes. She may also wish to move to flexible time arrangements on return. The other, male, doesn't. You're running a small business where losing a skilled worker for a short period is a very real burden, even if somebody else is paying her salary while she's on the government's paid parental leave scheme. Whom do you choose?

Cactus Kate makes the case:
I will never apologise for being honest enough to say that I don't like employing women of child bearing age especially if they have just got married or are loved up with a boyfriend because you know the next step. Babies. It is bad enough for a small business losing a staffer for 12 (as it is in HK at 4/5th pay) or 14 weeks, try employment laws where you can't sack a woman while she is pregnant (that's nine months of secure employment) even if she is hopeless at her job or not turning up, try the woman who at 11 weeks and a few days of investment and patience waiting for her to return to work, then hands you their bloody resignation. Try co-workers having to pick up the slack while she is away as you can't afford a temp.
In many cases they cope fine which means on return to the workforce it's pretty clear the new mothers position can be made redundant anyhow. This is the reality of parental leave. It indicates pretty quickly to an employer just how crucial a woman is or isn't to an operation. In many ways it's a rehearsal for redundancy.
We can wish that employers would willingly take on these costs. And many who do find that they wind up with a very loyal and committed employee if they do. But it is a risk. And it's a risk that, at least in data from a very nicely designed field experiment in France, has employers shy away from employing women with high maternity risk. Lower employment isn't the only way that the policy's costs can be shifted; Jon Gruber finds that costs of mandated maternity benefits through US employer-provided health insurance tends to be borne through lower wages for women [HT: @KevinMilligan]. And it's a pretty plausible candidate explanation for the lesbian pay gap; my excellent honours student, Hayden Skilling, is investigating this as his honours project this year.

New Zealand currently requires employers to hold a woman's position open for a year if she takes maternity; the government provides paid leave scaled to the woman's salary (and subject to a relatively low cap) for 14 weeks. The Labour Party proposes extending this to 26 weeks; the bill has been drawn from the ballot. It is likely to pass first reading, but likely to be killed afterwards because of the budgetary implications.

Were it implemented, I'd expect that the policy will increase the amount of time that women spend on maternity leave. In Canada, Baker and Milligan found that a doubling of the compensated maternity leave entitlement significantly increased the amount of time women spent on maternity leave.* Employers will bear costs despite that the paid leave entitlement is covered by IRD: it will be harder for employers to cover leave internally and so more of them will have to find replacements willing to work on temporary contracts. A longer time outside of the workplace means skills have longer to erode. Women are also more likely to want to return on part-time or flex-time arrangements after longer periods outside of the workforce; Schott finds that the American Family and Medical Leave Act increased women's likelihood of returning to work part-time rather than full-time.** Finally, we may expect increased labour market participation among women anticipating maternity leave, but also increased employer reluctance to take on women of higher maternity risk except at lower wages. But, I don't have a great sense of the incremental cost above existing leave entitlements; what's true at the margin might not cash out as much in the aggregate.

If Labour's economics were just a bit stronger, they'd be trying to couple their policy with some kind of compensation mechanism for employers whose workers take maternity leave rather than embedding the lump of labour fallacy into the bill's explanatory note:
Extending paid parental leave from the current entitlement of 14 weeks to 26 weeks would support families and also create jobs across the economy as employers engage staff to replace those on paid parental leave. As the majority of paid parental leave is uplifted by women, it has the added benefit of creating jobs in areas of the economy where women work, while supporting families and the well-being of children.
Why not advocate for a maximum 35-hour work-week to encourage employers to hire more temp workers to cover the work not done?

* While the Canadian change increased breastfeeding rates, one of the NZ bill's other stated purposes, it had no effect on child health outcomes.

** While Schott finds increased workplace flexibility encourages post-natal female employment, we might reasonably worry that increased likelihood of moving to part-time or flex-time arrangements reduces an employer's willingness to invest in an employee's human capital or to take on the worker in the first place except at lower wages.

Note: updated a couple of times for clarity and to add links to a couple of helpful tweets from Kevin Milligan and Frances Woolley.

Update 2: @askessler recommends this IZA piece showing no long term benefits to kids from paid maternity leave extensions in Germany. 


  1. Eric, my reading of the literature (see, e.g. this classic piece by Ruhm is that it's really when leaves start stretching for more than a year that significant negative labour market impacts appear. My guess is the benefits in terms of children's and family's well-being of going from 14 to 26 weeks is enough to outweigh the negative labour market impacts.

    I know Michael Baker didn't find much of a positive impact of breast-feeding on children's outcomes, but he was looking at a very short time period. I attribute the fact that I get sick less often than some of my contemporaries in part to being breast-fed (supposedly breast feeding strengthens the immune system). The point is that the beneficial effects of breast-feeding may be manifested over decades, not over months or years.

    Look at the US, and look at the strong negative relationship between female education and fertility - a relationship that is much weaker or non-existent in Canada, don't know about NZ. Do you really want to go there?

    1. Thanks for the Ruhm piece. The IZA piece linked would suggest longer term childhood outcomes aren't much affected either though.

      I'm not sure what the education-fertility cross-effects would be in New Zealand. Here, a woman on mat leave gets her gross weekly wage up to a cap of $460 - that's less than minimum wage on a 40 hour week here. In other words, something that doesn't amount to much for a higher earning family but that might induce folks on lower salaries to have an additional child. Extending from 14 to 26 weeks of less-than-minimum-wage might have education-fertility effects that run in the opposite direction to those you might hope.

      The bigger policy move set to address the education-fertility gradient here is the proposed change to the Domestic Purposes Benefit that reduces the extra benefit that women on the DPB get from having an additional child.

  2. Of course, if you want equality between the sexes, you need to make men just as risky to employ. Military Age and Child-Bearing age are roughly the same, so this is why I recommended invading France.