Deep Dives

Your guide to paid leave in the U.S.

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An illustration of a child being carried on her parents' shoulders, who each have an arm around each other
Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti
“How much leave are you taking?”

This question we often ask expecting parents in the U.S. assumes they can take time away from their jobs to care for a new child. In reality, there is no federal guarantee of paid parental leave in the U.S., so many new parents are forced to make impossible choices between their financial stability and their families. The arrival of a new child isn’t the only time people need paid leave, as caregivers of seriously ill or injured family members, or anyone who has had to recover from a serious medical condition, can attest. What’s the difference between the various types of leave, who has access to what, and why?

We turned to two trusted experts, Brigid Schulte and Vicki Shabo of the Better Life Lab at New America, to untangle some of these knots. Read on for answers to common questions about how leave works in the U.S., how it compares to the rest of the world, and why a national paid leave policy is so important.
 



1. What is paid family and medical leave?


2. What determines whether you have paid family or medical leave in the U.S.?


3.How does the U.S. compare with other countries when it comes to paid family and medical leave?


4. How did the U.S. fall so far behind other countries when it comes to paid leave?


5. But the U.S. already has the Family and Medical Leave Act. Why isn’t it enough?


6. Who is most affected by the lack of a national paid leave policy?


7. Why is access to paid leave important?


8. Where do things stand with paid leave in the United States today?


9. What are the key policy questions lawmakers should consider?


10. What are good resources for learning more about paid leave?


11. What can people who care about this issue do to help?

 

1. What is paid family and medical leave?
Paid family and medical leave is paid time away from one's job, taken in order to provide care to an ailing or disabled loved one, to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child, or to receive medical treatments or recover from a serious health issue.

The term “paid family leave” covers both leave for parents of new children and leave for people who need to care for a seriously ill, injured, elderly or disabled loved one. However, sometimes policymakers, businesses and journalists use the term more loosely to mean leave that is only for parents caring for a newborn, newly adopted or newly placed foster child (“parental leave”), or even just for people who have physically given birth. The term “paid medical leave” refers to time a worker needs to seek treatment for or recover from their own serious health issue. “Medical leave” is used loosely, too—some use it as shorthand for routine sick time.

As a constituent, employee, or consumer, it is important to look carefully at the details of any policy or proposal to understand exactly who is covered and for what reasons.

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2. What determines whether you have paid family or medical leave in the U.S.?
The vast majority of workers (81 percent) in the U.S. do not have designated paid family leave to care for a new child or seriously ill loved one, and fewer than half (40 percent) have paid medical leave through a temporary disability insurance policy offered by their employers for their own serious health issues that last for weeks or months. In fact, the U.S. is the only developed economy without a national paid family and medical leave policy for new mothers, and one of a small group of countries without paid leave for family caregiving and personal medical needs. With the exception of workers in the soon-to-be eight states that have statewide paid family and medical leave policies—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia—the conditions under which workers are able to take paid time off are subject to the rules of a particular boss or company. This “boss lottery”—that is, hoping your supervisor or organization understands and supports workers with caregiving responsibilities—makes workers’ level of protection uncertain, in contrast to the near certainty that, at some point, they will likely need to take time away from their daily routines to give or receive care.
81%
81% of workers in the U.S. do not have designated paid family leave through their employers to care for a new child or seriously ill loved ones.
A map of the United States showing the eight states (along with the District of Columbia) which guarantee state-wide Paid Family and Medical Leave
Even employers that voluntarily provide paid leave to some employees often offer very different benefits to different kinds of workers. For example, professional workers, seen as “talent,” are more likely to enjoy a generous benefits package with ample time off at full pay, while support staff with the same caregiving needs may have little or no time off, or may only be paid a portion of their wages when they take leave.


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3. How does the U.S. compare with other countries when it comes to paid family and medical leave?
The U.S. is an outlier relative to other countries. All other members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) guarantee paid maternity leave for new mothers—as do virtually all other countries worldwide except Papua New Guinea, Suriname, and a chain of small island nations. All but five OECD countries (Ireland, Israel, Switzerland, Turkey and the U.S.) offer paid parental leave to new fathers. And all but two (South Korea and the U.S.) guarantee paid sick time to their workers. Most countries have adopted social insurance protections that guarantee workers a portion of their usual pay, creating universal baseline paid leave standards that private companies can build upon.
Virtually all countries except Papa New Guinea, Suriname, and a chain of small island nations guarantee paid maternity leave for new mothers. The U.S. does not.
Other countries’ experiences can help policymakers in the U.S. design a program that maximizes workers’ ability to use the leave that’s available to them and to promote other valuable outcomes, such as women’s enhanced workplace opportunities and economic security; men’s more equal caregiving at home; the health of babies, new parents, people with serious health issues and family caregivers; and the feasibility of paid leave for businesses of all sizes.


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4. How did the U.S. fall so far behind other countries when it comes to paid leave?
There are various factors that have likely contributed to the current state of things in the U.S.: a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that frames work-family challenges as deeply private issues that people must navigate alone; industry and trade group concerns about regulation and public policies harming employer-employee relationships; low rates of unionization compared to other competitive economies where they have won paid leave protections; bias and stereotypes about the role of women and mothers in the workplace; and an overall devaluing of the care work that middle- and upper-class women did for free in their own homes—and that poor women and women of color did for pay in other people’s homes or institutions—over many decades.

RELATED: To achieve gender equality, we need to support men as caregivers

Fortunately, advocacy, economic realities, health and business research and other factors are starting to change each of these narratives, and policy victories at the state and local levels are starting to drive the push for national-level changes.

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A woman holds her baby in the hallway after showing support for a paid family leave bill in D.C. The baby's onesie has a sticker on the bottom that reads "Paid Family Leave" with three hearts above it.
Tanya Snyder holds her 5-month-old after joining dozens of parents to show support for a paid leave policy in Washington, D.C. The District is one of the few places in the U.S., including eight states, with paid family and medical leave laws.
Photo by Jabin Botsford | Washington Post | Getty Images
5. But the U.S. already has the Family and Medical Leave Act. Why isn't it enough?
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) provides unpaid leave and health insurance continuation to about 60 percent of the workforce. It covers workers in businesses with 50 or more employees who have worked at least 1,250 hours in the prior year for their current employer and have been with that employer for at least one year prior to taking leave. The FMLA covers five caregiving circumstances:

  1. Time to care for a newborn, newly adopted or newly placed foster child (“parental leave” or “maternity” or “paternity” leave, and one component of “family leave”);

  2. Time to care for a family member with a serious health condition, including an injury, illness, or disability (the other component of “family leave”);

  3. Time to receive care or recover from a serious health condition (“medical leave”);

  4. Time to care for a wounded service member (“military caregiver leave”); and

  5. Time for a family member of a service member who has deployed to address certain circumstances arising from the service member’s deployment (“qualifying exigency leave”).

Weigh In

 
 
Do you have access to paid family and medical leave through your employer?
The most important thing to remember about the FMLA is that even when it applies to a worker's need for time away for personal or family care issues, it only guarantees leave without pay. For workers who are paid low wages or who otherwise live paycheck to paycheck, unpaid leave doesn’t work. In fact, between 2000 and 2012, the percentage of workers who were eligible for and needed FMLA leave but didn’t take it nearly doubled. The inability to afford an unpaid leave was the most common reason workers gave to explain why they chose to forgo an FMLA leave they needed.


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6. Who is most affected by the lack of a national paid leave policy?
Everybody is affected, whether directly or indirectly—but for workers with low incomes and their families, the effects can be most acute and long-lasting.

Overall, just 19 percent of civilian workers have access to designated paid family leave through their employers and just 40 percent of workers have personal medical leave for serious health issues through an employer’s short-term disability insurance policy. The disparities between highly compensated workers and workers who are paid low wages are dramatic. And 6 percent of the lowest-wage workers have paid family leave compared with 34 percent of the highest-wage workers. The inequities are compounded multiple times over. People paid low wages also have fewer resources to pay professional caregivers and are less able to take time away from the workforce; they’re also more likely to have more family care obligations or live in multi-generational households.

Black, Latinx and immigrant families have less access to paid leave than white families, and face additional economic and workplace challenges due to discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and national origin. Without access to paid leave, health challenges may become more pronounced or go untreated, children get sicker, and parents grow more stressed. These challenges compound over time and may hit lower-wage workers and people of color harder, making it even more difficult to afford leave, stay financially afloat, or save for the future.

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Black, Latinx and immigrant families have less access to paid leave than white families.
7. Why is access to paid leave important?
Without paid leave, workers’ time away from their jobs to provide or receive care often comes at a high price. Unpaid time off can throw a family into financial crisis. And for the 40 percent of workers without FMLA protections, unless their employers guarantee they will hold their jobs for them when they need to take time off, taking that time can mean losing their jobs altogether.

In contrast, access to paid leave for new parents has been shown to improve infant and maternal health, engage fathers in caregiving, improve women’s workforce participation and earnings, and reduce the use of public assistance in the year after a child’s birth. Access to paid leave for older workers may promote workforce attachment and guard against older workers leaving the workforce at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in earnings and retirement savings. When paid leave exists, businesses see savings in reduced turnover costs. Paid leave would also help promote economic productivity and the GDP by making it easier for women to stay in the workforce.

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Without paid leave, workers’ time away from their jobs to provide or receive care often comes at a high price.
8. Where do things stand with paid leave in the United States today?
U.S. policymakers and businesses are starting to recognize the need for paid leave. Eight states plus the District of Columbia have enacted paid family and medical leave laws and, in the most recent state legislative sessions, two dozen states considered paid leave bills. At the same time, some employers have adopted new or more expansive policies for their own workers, and a few have even started to require paid leave of contractors in their supply chains.

A record number of lawmakers in the U.S. Congress on both sides of the political aisle are also searching for solutions more than ever before. Both the U.S. House and Senate have held well-attended, bipartisan paid leave hearings; however, Democratic and Republican lawmakers have yet to agree on a specific policy solution.


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Eight states plus the District of Columbia have enacted paid family and medical leave laws
9. What are the key policy questions lawmakers should consider?
There are some essential policy questions that lawmakers must answer as they consider what type of federal policy the U.S. needs. Here are a few of the most important:

  • Should a policy seek to address all caregiving needs—including parental, family and medical—or should policymakers start with one pressing need? Some policy proposals at the federal level (and all state paid leave laws) comprehensively cover parents caring for new children, people caring for seriously ill or injured loved ones, and people’s own serious health issues—whereas other federal proposals and many private-sector policies cover only parents caring for new children.

  • Should a paid leave program be funded through new tax revenue? Or should policymakers make cuts to other programs or redistribute existing revenues? State programs are all funded through small payroll deductions from workers, employers, or both. Federal policymakers are currently exploring whether to pay for paid leave the same way at the national level, much like the way the current Social Security system is funded, or whether there are alternatives that would redistribute existing government revenue or rely on individual voluntary contributions.

  • What are the appropriate levels of wage replacement, maximum benefit amount, and duration of leave? State policies that are currently or will soon be in place include wage replacement levels between 60 percent and 100 percent of a worker's wages for between four and 26 weeks, with a weekly cap ranging from $650 (New Jersey) to $1,252 (California). Federal policymakers are currently exploring options, and there is growing agreement that low-wage workers should have a higher proportion of their wages replaced in order to make leave affordable. As far as duration, the FMLA provides 12 weeks of leave, and current proposals call for leaves from six to 12 weeks. Research suggests that longer leaves are associated with longer lives and better physical, mental, cognitive, and relationship outcomes for children and families.

  • Should a paid leave program also include job protection for all workers? Implementation of paid leave in several states has underscored the importance of ensuring job security. Because when workers have paid leave but are scared that they will lose their jobs if they use it, they are less likely to take the leave that’s available to them. This is especially true for lower-wage workers. Federal policymakers are currently exploring expansions to the FMLA or other means of securing a worker’s job to make a paid leave program truly useful for the workers who need it most.
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10. What are good resources for learning more about paid leave?
There is a growing body of research available to show the need for and benefits of paid leave, its popularity, and what’s at stake for different constituencies, such as people with disabilities and their caregivers, LGBTQ people and caregivers, large businesses, small businesses, and faith-based institutions. There are also a growing number of economists on the left and the right and other researchers who are considering how best to craft a policy, including learning from the experiences of states and other countries. Prior congressional hearings can be viewed here (U.S. Senate, July 2018) and here (U.S. House, May 2019).


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11. What can people who care about this issue do to help?
It’s up to all of us to change the way policymakers, employers, and even our friends, families and neighbors deal with the nearly universal need for time off to care. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Tell your own story of your struggles and triumphs combining paid work and care. If you took paid leave, what did that mean for you and your family? Was there a time you needed paid leave and didn’t have it? How did that affect you, your family and loved ones?
  • Lead in your workplace. Get to know the policies of your organization, competitors, industry standards, and connect with others to advocate for best-in-class paid leave policies.
  • Ask the lawmakers who represent you to take action. Learn about successful state paid leave policies, and be willing to imagine our country as one that truly supports its families with policies like national paid family and medical leave.

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Posted: September 25, 2019