Twenty-four years ago, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA has allowed millions of workers to take time off work to care for new children and seriously ill family members, but it has several shortcomings and was only intended to be a first step. But over the past 24 years, US policy has stagnated while most of the rest of the world has demonstrated how well common-sense paid leave policies can function. Today, members of Congress have re-introduced legislation that would help us catch up.
The FMLA’s two most important shortcomings are allowing only unpaid leave and not applying to all workers. The act allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of leave without pay to deal with their own serious medical condition or that of a family member and return to their jobs afterwards. But because the leave is unpaid, many workers can’t afford to take it. Also, the benefits are only available to workers of employers with 50 or more employees, and only when the worker has logged at least 1,250 hours with that employer over the past year. This means new hires and many part-time workers — around 40% of all US workers — are ineligible for FMLA leave.
Back in 2013, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, or FAMILY Act, to address these shortcomings. It would create a “social insurance” system funded by a payroll tax (two-tenths of one percent of workers’ wages, or $1.50 per week for the average worker) and administered by the Social Security Administration. Eligible employees could receive 66% of their monthly wages, up to a capped amount, for up to 12 weeks while dealing with their own serious health conditions, bonding with a new birth or adopted child, or caring for a family member (including a domestic partner) with a serious health condition. Today, the FAMILY Act has been reintroduced, giving members of Congress a chance to support the kind of policy with broad public support that cuts across party lines. Senator Gillibrand led a group of 27 Senators supporting the Act, and Representative DeLauro was joined by 113 House cospsonsors.
The National Partnership for Women and Families has provided a checklist for paid leave proposals. They call for policies that meet the following criteria:
Affordable: Cost-effective for workers, employers, and the government
Inclusive: Accessible to all working people and reflecting a modern definition of “family”
Substantial: Including 12 weeks of leave or more
Comprehensive: Covering equally the full range of personal medical and family caregiving needs
Secure: No fear of retaliation or adverse consequences for taking leave
The FAMILY Act meets these criteria. It also has support from the US public health community. The American Public Health Association is one of nearly 50 groups signing a letter supporting the FAMILY Act of 2017. “Ensuring access to paid family and medical leave is vital to strengthening the well-being of our workers and their families, especially low-income workers who can least afford to take unpaid time away from work to recover from a serious illness or care for a seriously ill family member get sick,” said APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, MD.
In 2013, APHA adopted a policy statement calling on the US Congress to pass legislation “making paid medical and family-caregiving leave available to all workers regardless of employer size or sector.” The statement notes:
The failure of the United States to ensure paid sick and family leave for all US workers harms individual workers and the public’s health. Low-income families disproportionately bear the economic hardship and negative health impacts of this policy failure.
While the federal government’s inaction on paid medical and family leave has been disappointing for more than two decades, some states have stepped up to offer paid leave. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have all set up successful social insurance systems that partially replace workers’ salaries when they take time off work to care for a new child or family member with a serious health condition, or to address their own disabling condition. (For more details, see the “State Initiatives” section of this paper from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.) Last year, New York and the District of Columbia passed laws establishing paid family and medical leave programs that will start paying benefits in 2018 and 2020, respectively.
Workers shouldn’t have to choose between their paychecks and the health of their families. The FAMILY Act can reduce inequality and improve public health. It seems like something that should get support from members of Congress who describe themselves as “pro-family.”
New York state approves country’s most generous paid family leave law (April 2016)
Leaked poll shows business execs overwhelmingly support paid leave, higher wages and fair scheduling (April 2016)
Business-school professors call for paid family and medical leave (September 2015)
Returning to work two weeks after giving birth (August 2015)
“You shouldn’t have to win the boss lottery”: The White House Summit on Working Families (June 2014)
FAMILY Act would reduce pressure on workers to choose between their jobs and their families’ health (December 2013)