The U.S. is the only developed country in the world without a national paid leave policy. The closest thing we have is the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 that essentially ensures employees can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for newborns or sick family members without losing their job. This is only offered to people who have worked for their employer at least one year at an organization with at least 50 employees.
FMLA covers approximately 60 percent of the American workforce, but half of eligible employees don’t use it because they can’t afford to go unpaid for 12 weeks. This has left the responsibility of providing paid family leave up to employers. Unfortunately, that means hourly and low-wage workers and people of color are less likely to have access to family leave.
Without any federal mandates on paid family leave, many states have begun implementing their own policies.
States Leading the Way Pre-Pandemic
It is important to note that before the COVID-19 pandemic, in January of 2020, the government took a large step forward by offering federal employees up to 12 weeks paid parental leave beginning in October 1 of this year. By covering more than two million employees, this was seen as a statement on the forward movement of family leave in the US.
Nine states and D.C have implemented paid family and medical leave laws, up from four in 2016.
In 2002, California was the first state to provide paid family leave. The program is funded by employees and paid out from California’s State Disability Insurance Fund. It originally provided up to six weeks of paid family leave defined as taking time off to bond with a new child from birth, adoption, or foster care placement or to take care of a seriously ill child, spouse, parent or domestic partner. In 2013, the state expanded that meaning to include taking care of ill parents-in-law, grandparents, grandchildren, or siblings. In 2020, California increased the family leave time from six weeks to eight.
New Jersey implemented a paid family law in 2008 providing six weeks to care for a new child or seriously ill family member. In 2019, it was reported that New Jersey workers filed over 255,000 leave claims from 2009 to 2016, and 205,000 of those were used to bond with a newborn.
New Jersey pays for this program with a payroll tax on employees and it originally offered up to 66 percent wage-replacement. While helpful, this rate was difficult for low-income workers so in 2020, they raised the rate to 85 percent wage-replacement. Policymakers also increased the family leave time from six weeks to 12 weeks.
Connecticut has a family and medical leave program that will begin collecting premiums in January of 2021 to begin paying out benefits in 2022. This will be entirely funded by employee tax withholding. The program provides up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a newborn or care for themselves or a family member with a serious health condition. Connecticut residents can also take two extra weeks if they experience health issues from a complicated pregnancy. One way this program stands out is that self-employed workers and state and local collectives can also opt in.
Oregon’s legislature has designed a paid family and medical leave insurance program for employees earning at least $1,000 a year. Oregonians will get 12 weeks of leave with full or partial pay, depending on the employee’s weekly wages. They must be employed by their current employer for at least 90 days to qualify for leave covering the birth of a newborn, arrival of an adopted or foster child, recovering from a serious health condition, or providing care for a family member with a serious health condition. In some cases, employees may qualify if they or a child/dependent experience domestic violence, harassment, sexual assault, or stalking.
Employer and employee contributions will begin January of 2022 and payments will start in 2023.
Other states like Hawaii, Florida, Iowa, and South Carolina have also introduced legislation but many have been stalled in committee because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Priorities from a COVID-19 World
When the coronavirus quickly swept across the US, it became clear new policies were needed to provide relief for the American workforce.
By passing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), the federal government guaranteed repayment to small and midsize businesses and non-profits for costs related to providing sick leave to employees. It also offered emergency paid family leave for parents who can’t work because of school and child care service closures.
This legislation is set to run out at the end of 2020.
The main focus of pandemic response has been on offering sick leave for all workers in order to ensure everyone infected with the coronavirus can properly quarantine and stop the spread. However, a growing number of state legislators are seeing the need for family leave as a result of the pandemic. Parents are feeling the strain of virtual schooling and caring for sick family members, prompting them to leave the workforce entirely.
In response, several states are commissioning reports on how to effectively implement family leave policies in their own states.
“Oftentimes, a governmental approach or policy kind of pulls everybody else along,” says Pamela-Sutton Wallace, Senior Vice President and Regional Chief Operating Officer at New York Presbyterian, one of the largest hospitals in the country. She notes, for example, “countries that invest in Pre-K and offer high-quality Pre-K services and childcare have clearly been able to demonstrate better educational and health outcomes for those children later in their lives.” If the government takes initiative, it makes a difference.
As employers and state legislators create executive orders to secure the rights of families, they’re also considering the benefits of basic coverage – how financial security could change the lives of those caring for family members from newborns to grandparents. These realizations at the local, state, and federal level present a very positive outlook for the future of paid family leave.