Feb 1, 2023 - Economy

Paid family leave still out of reach for most American workers

Data: BLS Employee Benefits Survey; Note: family leave covers time off to care for a child or family member; Chart: Axios Visuals

When President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act into law — providing workers with unpaid time off to care for a child, ailing parent, or their own medical issue — advocates believed it wouldn't be long before the U.S. passed paid leave laws as well.

Why it matters: This week, the Biden White House is set to commemorate the 30-year anniversary of the FMLA — but the U.S. is only incrementally closer to a nationwide paid leave policy.

  • And with the country facing a labor shortage, there's an increased need for the kinds of caregiving policies that keep more people attached to the workforce.

State of play: Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), along with other Democratic lawmakers, plan to unveil a legislative package establishing a federal paid leave plan and FMLA expansion. (The two have introduced similar legislation before.)

  • Meanwhile, a bipartisan working group on paid family leave recently formed in the House.

The big picture: For a long time, paid leave and caregiving, in general, was viewed as private, a women's issue — not the same kind of public economic concern as, say, health care or education, says Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow and leave advocate at New America.

  • The pandemic changed the perception, with more recognition that family challenges are economic issues. When parents or caregivers can't go to work, it's a financial concern for companies and the economy.
  • In 2021, the House passed a family leave policy but it failed to make it through the Senate.
  • Just last week, a group of Democratic lawmakers announced they'd formed a "Congressional Dads Caucus," to push for paid leave, among other family-friendly policies.

What they're saying: "This moment, feels like a marker," wrote historian Heather Cox Richardson in her Substack. "That some of Congress’s men for the first time ever are organizing to fight for parental needs just as the Department of Labor says childcare costs are “untenable” strikes me as a conjunction worth noting."

How it works: The FMLA lets workers at companies with 50 or more employees take 12 weeks unpaid leave to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child, care for a seriously ill child, spouse or parent, or care for your own health condition.

But, but, but: About 40% of workers aren't even covered by FMLA. And just one in four workers in the private sector has access to paid family leave — with higher-paid workers more likely to have coverage.

  • The lack of paid leave is particularly painful for low-income workers — only 12% get the benefit. They often can't afford to take time off.
  • One well-known survey from 2012 found that 23% of women go back to work less than two weeks after giving birth — posing a health risk for both infants and parents.
  • The U.S. is one of six countries in the world with no national paid leave policy, as the NYT reported in 2021.

What happened: When Bush took the White House in 2000, the policy momentum behind paid leave moved to the states, with California the first to pass a policy that year.

  • Now 11 states and Washington, D.C., have paid family leave programs for workers, funded through payroll deductions paid for by employers or employees, or both.
  • A handful of states appear poised to pass policies over the next year or so, including Minnesota, Maine, New Mexico and Vermont.

Reality check: With omnipresent recession fears and a political fight over the debt ceiling looming, the idea that Congress will pass a momentous bill expanding the social safety net seems like a stretch.

The bottom line: The FMLA fight was hard, too — it took nearly a decade to pass. "People kept saying it can't be done, you'll lose jobs, employers will lose money and the economy will go to hell in a handbasket," says Jocelyn Frye, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.

  • Those are the same complaints we're hearing now about paid leave, she adds.

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