The XX Factor

If Given the Choice, Americans Prefer Better Benefits to Higher Salaries

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are both strong proponents of paid family leave.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

One of the loudest applause lines in this week’s Democratic debates came just as they began, when Hillary Clinton called for paid family leave. “I believe it’s about time we had paid family leave for American families and join the rest of the world,” she said.

Americans have been saying loudly and clearly for some time they need employers to demonstrate more respect for their personal lives. The latest bit of evidence came earlier this month, courtesy of online job recruiter Glassdoor.  A survey conducted with Harris Poll revealed that 4 out of 5 American workers would rather receive an upgrade in their benefits package than an increase in pay. In a nation where the median household income, adjusted for inflation, is still lower than it was in the spring of 2009, this is no small finding. 

When asked what they wanted or needed the most, better health insurance—even in the days of Obamacare!—won by a hair. But health insurance trumped more vacation time by a mere 3 percent. About a third of those surveyed also asked for more sick days and increased retirement benefits—almost as many who’d like to see increased performance bonuses.

An increasing number of employers, if they offer health insurance at all, are shifting their employees to high-deductible plans, with the result that the Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported that out-of-pocket costs for those with employer-provided health insurance have increased by more than 200 percent since 2006. That’s a sum very few of us have received as a salary increase. The U.S. is an infamous laggard on vacation time compared with other first-world countries, not even requiring employers to offer it at all. More than a third of workers lack a single paid sick day; among low-earning workers, only about 3 in 10 can stay home when contagious and still collect a paycheck.

The Family Medical and Leave Act, of course, does not require paid leave and doesn’t even apply to employers with fewer than 50 employees. According to Sharon Lerner, the author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family Unfriendly Nation, more than 20 percent of women are back on the job within two weeks of giving birth. (This gruesome stat is one reason why it was so frustrating to see knee-jerk attacks on Bernie Sanders for this perfectly reasonable debate comment: “Every other major country on Earth … say[s] that when a mother has a baby, she should stay home with that baby.”)

It’s pretty remarkable: Many Americans, who are so financially stressed that surveys routinely find half or more of us would experience immediate financial difficulties if we lost a job or saw our paychecks delayed by a few weeks, would prefer a few days off to a raise.

There are two silver linings here. First, men were almost as likely as women to want some enhanced benefits. True, women were significantly more likely to want, say, a flexible schedule, but almost equal numbers of men and women wanted more vacation time. This buttresses the point that worker’s rights advocates and feminists have long tried to make: Taking a break from the job isn’t simply a fringe benefits that women want, while men concentrate on the “real” business of earning a living. Like other fringe benefits, it’s something that’s important to all of us. We want to work to live, not live to work.

Second, the younger the survey respondent was, the more these benefits mattered. Just under 90 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 said they wanted more benefits over more money. Eighty-four percent of those aged 35 to 44 (read: prime parenting age) also agreed. And the falloff after that wasn’t so dramatic—more than two-thirds of those over the age of 45 also preferred better benefits to more pay. Young people will be in charge someday, and what they want will matter.