February 19, 2019 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

Last week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) reintroduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY Act, which would create a social insurance system so workers could keep getting paid when they have to take time off to care for family members or deal with a serious medical condition of their own. The bill has been introduced in Congress every session since 2013, in an attempt to address the fact that the U.S. is the only industrialized country where workers aren’t guaranteed some kind of paid family leave.

At the federal level, what we have now is the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows some workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a calendar year and return to their jobs afterwards. One major flaw with the FMLA is that it’s unavailable to many workers, including those whose employers have fewer than 50 employees and those who’ve worked fewer than 1,250 hours for their employer during the past year. The other big problem is that FMLA leave is unpaid, so those in the toughest financial situations are least likely to be able to take leave.

Some states have addressed this shortcoming by adopting their own paid leave systems. California, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island all have programs of paid leave to care for new children, a family member with a serious health condition, or one’s own disability. The District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Washington have all established programs that will begin paying benefits in 2020 or 2021. (This handy chart from the National Partnership for Women and Families has details on the different programs.)

In 2013, the American Public Health Association 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.” Failing to make paid leave available harms public health and, the statement notes, “Low-income families disproportionately bear the economic hardship and negative health impacts of this policy failure.”

“The FAMILY Act is a common-sense, tested, and sustainable solution to addressing the needs of more than 100 million workers who currently have no paid family leave,” said Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women and Families. “It will especially benefit women of color and people in lower-wage jobs, who are often faced with the greatest caregiving challenges and are least likely to have access to paid leave. This compounds the disparities and discrimination women of color face and further compromises their economic security and well-being.”

We can’t have an equitable future without paid medical and family leave. Congress should pass the FAMILY Act.

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