Establishing universal paid family and medical leave in the United States is critical to restoring economic security for working families and overcoming the entrenched inequities of race, gender, and class that undermine our economy and squash opportunity for far too many.
Scientific evidence overwhelmingly confirms the importance of paid parental leave to the health and well-being of young children. With our population aging, more workers have responsibilities for caring for older family members and are themselves more at risk of serious illness or injury that may also require a lengthy time away from work.
Currently in the United States, the highest income employees often have generous employer-provided paid leave benefits that allow them to nurture a new child, care for a parent with a health crisis, and fully recover from their own serious health conditions. Middle and lower income workers, on the other hand, have limited or no access to paid leave, forcing them to choose between their family’s health or economic security.
As of 2014, the United States and Papua New Guinea were the only two out of 185 countries and territories in the world that did not guarantee paid maternity leave. Most developed economies also provide paid paternity leave along with guaranteed paid sick leave and vacation time.
Fortunately, programs in California, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island provide highly successful models of family and disability leave programs that other states can replicate. Washington and other states can learn from the experience in these states to craft their own programs in ways that assure that all workers have access, regardless of income or occupation, and that businesses of all sizes can support their workers and communities and continue to thrive.
Adopting statewide paid family and medical leave programs to assure all workers access to paid leave is a crucial step toward overcoming health disparities and inequality in the U.S., and the key to eventual Congressional action to make universal and portable family and medical leave accessible to all U.S. workers.
The benefits of paid family and medical leave include boosting infant and parent health, promoting family economic security and equity, protecting workers’ health, and supporting elder and family care. But currently, the benefits associated with lengthy paid parental leaves in the U.S. are available mostly to babies lucky enough to be born in one of the handful of states with a disability insurance/family leave program, or whose parents are highly paid professionals with especially generous employers. Extended time off work with pay to go through treatment and fully recover from serious illness or injury, or care for a family member, is also not available to most workers.
Federal and local policy successes – including the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act, and State Disability and Family Leave Insurance Programs – point the way forward. While Washington state’s progress has been somewhat stymied by business lobby opposition and economic downturns, the need for policy change on paid leave is increasingly in the national spotlight.
Despite all this activity, the U.S. remains a long way from universal paid family leave. While many individual business owners support paid leave legislation, most business lobby associations at the local, state, and federal levels oppose new labor standards and and actively campaign against them. The path to eventual Congressional victory will be long and will require additional states to adopt programs and provide even more proof that family-friendly policies are fully compatible with a strong economy and strong businesses.
In the meantime, state lawmakers can learn from the proven results in states with Temporary Disability Insurance and/or Paid Family Leave laws on the books, where outcome for both workers have been positive and businesses have continued to enjoy success. Experience from existing state programs suggests that policy details and implementation strategies can be crafted to maximize the positive impacts of family and medical leave insurance on health and family economic security.
Policy considerations include:
- Leaves need to be long enough to meet common basic health needs of workers, infants, and family members.
- Wage replacement rates need to be structured so that low- and moderate-income workers can afford to take time off, along with higher income.
- Providing job security to workers beyond FMLA will also enhance the ability of economically vulnerable workers to take leaves.
- Educational materials to employers must be clear and provided through a variety of methods. Employers need to understand what they must do to comply, with minimal confusion and paperwork. Most workers will find out about the program through their employers, so employers must know when an employee is likely to be eligible for benefits and where to direct the employee to apply.
- Outreach to workers must also be multipronged and continuous, including through health providers and community organizations, particularly those who serve lower income and other vulnerable workers who are least likely to otherwise know about benefits available to them.
- The application process must be simple, with help available in multiple languages and culturally appropriate ways.
The evidence is consistent and compelling: establishing family and medical leave insurance for all workers will reduce health disparities, dramatically improve outcomes for young children, enhance the quality of life of seniors, boost the lifetime earnings of women, and reduce the high social and public costs associated with poverty and inequality in the United States. We have proven policy tools to enact universal, portable, low cost systems at the state and federal levels now. Voters of all parties support adoption of these policies. It is time for Washington and other states to move forward.
Excerpted from EOI policy brief: Paid Family and Medical Leave: A Cornerstone of Equity and Opportunity for Workers and Families »