When workers are also caregivers

Building on findings showing the effects of mandatory paid leave on the work hours of caregivers, Dr. Kathryn Wagner is accessing larger data sets and investigating new issues, such as how changes in certain states allowing for longer periods of paid leave will affect those caring for spouses in need.

By Sarah Koziol, Arts ’92, and Stephen Filmanowicz

Historically the United States has been less generous with paid leave benefits than other economically advanced countries, according to Dr. Kathryn Wagner, associate professor of economics. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought increasing awareness of their importance.

Wagner has been pursuing paid leave research that reveals caregivers are less likely to reduce their paid work hours after a family member experiences a health shock when they live in states that mandate paid caregiver leaves.

Now, what she and her co-investigators want to know next is who has access to paid family leave outside of those states.

Dr. Kathryn Wagner

Her current research team, funded by The Washington Center for Equitable Growth, is using machine-learning techniques to filter through what limited sources are available on employer-provided paid leaves. Then Wagner will use the data to evaluate how people’s financial security and employment are affected by the likelihood of paid leave access following a qualifying health event. She’ll also interpret what these findings mean for paid leave policies overall.

“Paid leave is a relatively under-researched topic because we generally have not had data that allows us to measure its impacts,” Wagner says. “Using restricted-level data that is often inaccessible and limited to estimate models will allow us to examine paid leave in more robust survey populations.”

As Wagner and her team gain access to broader data sets — and use machine learning to better detect patterns in that data — they hope to bring clarity to understudied issues. For example, paid parental leave is often considered as serving the needs of parents attending to sick children. Caring for a spouse with a health crisis is also a qualifying event, but are spousal caregivers as aware of their eligibility for this benefit? And how well suited are mandated paid leave benefits — typically six weeks of leave at 55 to 67 percent wage replacement — for caregivers of spouses with more serious or long-term health needs? Insight into that last question may come from two states that recently gave caregivers access to longer periods of paid leave. 

“In 2020, California and New Jersey extended the terms of their paid leave benefits from six to 12 weeks, so we might see different impacts with these extensions for people wanting to provide spousal caregiving,” Wagner says. ”Paid leave is not intended to be a long-term support for full-time caregiving, but it is possible these benefits would be more useful as short-term stabilizers after a disability or health shock if the wage replacement rate were higher and/or the duration were longer.”

With these states expanding and other states considering mandates that require employers to offer paid leave to their employees, Wagner appreciates the magnitude of this project. “By understanding any potential benefits and costs from paid leave, our work can demonstrate the impact it could have, which could be especially relevant for vulnerable populations that are more likely to need the support,” Wagner says.