Mythbusting Paid Leave Statistics

A favorite statistic cited by paid family leave activists is thoroughly misleading. Activists regularly argue that only 15 percent of workers have access to paid family leave, relying on a Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) number. Just this week, the figure was cited in a Harvard Business Review article, a WSJ letter, and a Bloomberg Businessweek report on Leaning In, among other places.

But the BLS figure doesn’t agree with federal data sets or national survey results, including the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), FMLA Worksite and Employee Surveys, Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), or the National Survey of Working Mothers. Estimates of access to paid leave by source are detailed in the table below.

Table: Estimates of Access to Paid Parental Leave


Source Paid Leave Figure Details
FMLA Worksite and Employee Surveys 57% of women and 55% of men received pay for parental leave from any source 2012 Data
National Survey of Working Mothers 63% of employed mothers said their employer provided paid maternity leave benefits 2013 Survey
Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) 50.8% of working mothers report using paid leave of some kind before or after child birth 2006 - 2008 Data
Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) Dating back to 1994, on average 45% of working women took parental leave received some pay 1994 - 2014 Data

The difference between the BLS figure and other federal and national figures is considerable. For example, the BLS figure is more than 40 percentage points lower than the FMLA figure, and there is a 50 percentage point spread between the BLS number and the National Survey of Working Mothers number.

That is partly because BLS uses a peculiar definition of paid family leave that excludes most types of paid leave that can be used for family reasons. The particulars are described in greater detail here. As a result, the BLS figure is an extreme outlier even compared to other federal data sources.

As an extreme outlier, the BLS figure is misleading in the extreme. To engage in an accurate conversation about the experience of working parents, activists and policy makers should abandon it.