There are a handful of times during one’s career when it will be necessary to take significant time away from work for health or family needs: to welcome a new child, recover from surgery, care for a spouse with cancer, or tend to aging parents. Paid family and medical leave not only enables workers to take time to address care needs, but provides benefits to families, business owners, and communities.
Research shows providing parents with paid leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child has long-lasting benefits for children. It increases the amount of time for caregiving by both mothers and fathers and the duration of breastfeeding, contributing to better health and social development. For seniors, paid family leave enables younger working family members to provide care and establish appropriate long-term care arrangements, rather than relying on costly nursing facilities.
Paid family and medical leave is also essential to leveling the playing field for women in the workforce. Women continue to earn less than their male counterparts and are less likely to receive pay while on leave. Yet, women also spend more time as caregivers, which puts them at an economic disadvantage. Paid family leave has been shown to boost economic stability for working women – increasing their likelihood of returning to work after childbirth and decreasing their use of public assistance.
Despite these documented advantages and the growing need for paid leave benefits, fewer than one in eight workers in the U.S. has access to paid family leave. Lower-wage, part-time, and service sector employees often have little or no paid leave of any kind.
And while many full-time workers do have access to some paid sick and vacation leave, it usually only covers a few days or weeks in a year – perhaps sufficient to cover many routine health needs, but inadequate for more significant illnesses and life events. As a result, far too many workers face an impossible choice: take unpaid leave and sacrifice economic security, or return to work and sacrifice family health and well-being. Public policy solutions are readily available.
For decades, all workers in five states – over 20% of the U.S. workforce – have been guaranteed paid leave for their own serious health condition under temporary disability insurance (TDI) programs in California, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Hawaii. Puerto Rico also has a TDI system in place. California and New Jersey have added paid family leave to their state TDI programs. Workers in these states directly benefit from partial wage replacement when they must take leave, and employers benefit from more productive employees. Further, the increase in family income flows back to businesses throughout the community – contributing to the vibrancy of the local economy.
In Washington, the state legislature approved the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program in 2007 to provide five weeks of partially paid leave for parents of a new child. However, the ongoing budget crisis has delayed implementation of the program until 2015. State lawmakers will face a choice of how to fund and finalize policy for the program in 2013. To help rebuild economic security for struggling families and main street businesses – while boosting the health of children, workers, and seniors – lawmakers should:
- enhance benefits and provide for longer leaves;
- extend the program to workers who need leave for their own serious health condition or to care for ill family members; and
- authorize payroll premiums to fund benefits.