Today, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (“FAMILY Act”). This bill would provide workers throughout the United States with up to 12 weeks of paid leave at up to 66% of their earned wages, similar to (but more generous than) California’s Paid Family Leave Program.
As both an employment lawyer (with a special interest in leave laws) who represents many working parents and as a mother myself, I can say from experience that California’s Paid Family Leave Program has had a tremendous impact on working parents, many of whom struggle to balance work and family.
The first three months of being a new parent were the hardest, most trying times of my life. As a litigator, I used to think that going to trial was physically demanding–with four hours of sleep a night for weeks on end–but, really, that’s nothing compared to what it takes to care for a newborn when you’re already worn down by pregnancy and childbirth!
My husband and I both took off as much time as we could. I received 16 weeks of leave paid through the State of California’s Employment Development Department (EDD), the first ten as pregnancy disability leave and the next six as paid family leave for baby bonding. My husband took 12 weeks of baby bonding leave, which was job protected under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Unfortunately, his was unpaid because he was a state employee and most state employees are ineligible for paid family leave through EDD.
As new parents, we were incredibly grateful to have this time with our baby. Even before my husband and I got married, we agreed that we would both take the full amount of time that we could, and that we would be equal parents. Both of us are committed to gender equality and know that it cannot be achieved unless dads step up and do their fair share at home. But while equal parenting was something we were philosophically committed to, we soon discovered that spending time with our baby was a labor of love and a privilege, not an obligation.
I simply cannot imagine going back to work full time six or eight or even twelve weeks after my baby was born. But that is what many moms do. And most moms don’t have the support of a partner who can take off even a month, let alone 12 weeks. Research shows that one in four American mothers returns to work within two months of giving birth, and 41% within three months (compare this to only 7% of mothers in the U.K.). And while 85% of new dads take parental leave, the vast majority take only a week or two.
Why is this the case? In short: because most Americans simply cannot afford to take more time off. According to a 2012 Department of Labor (DOL) survey, only about 40% of employees nationally have access to fully paid FMLA leave for durations of longer than 10 days. A mere 22% of worksites offer any paid maternity leave, while only 9% offer paid paternity leave. It is estimated that around three quarters of Americans live from paycheck-to-paycheck, and 68% of Americans would face difficulties if their paychecks were delayed by even a week.
It is no surprise, then, that the 2012 DOL survey found that nearly half of workers who took leave (49.6%) cut it short because they could not afford more time off. Among those who reported that they needed leave but did not take it, 46% stated that inability to afford leave was the reason they did not take it. This applies not just to baby-bonding leave or leave to care for a sick relative, but also leave that workers need to take for their own serious medical conditions.
What’s the solution? Paid family and medical leave for all American workers. California’s Paid Family Leave (PFL) Program serves as a wonderful example. Since 2004, this program has offered paid family leave to all workers who pay into the state disability insurance program. It has proven to be wildly successful. According to research published in the report Leaves That Pay: Employer and Worker Experiences with Paid Family Leave in California (Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman, 2011):
- 91% of those who used PFL stated that it had a positive effect on their ability to care for a new baby, foster child, or adopted child.
- The median duration of bonding leave by fathers using PFL was more than double that of those who did not use it, four weeks vs. two weeks by men in higher-paying jobs (those that paid over $20 an hour and had employer-paid health benefits) and eight weeks vs. three weeks by men in lower-paying jobs (this statistic being particularly exciting).
- PFL doubled the median duration of breastfeeding by new mothers who used it, from five to eleven weeks by mothers in higher-paying jobs and five to nine weeks by mothers in lower-paying jobs.
We can help bring these benefits to workers, babies, families, and employers throughout the country by passing the FAMILY Act. If passed, the FAMILY Act will provide workers with paid leave that will cover time off to care for their own serious health condition; the serious health condition of a child, parent, spouse, or domestic partner; the birth or adoption of a child; and/or certain military-related care and leave. The FAMILY Act would cover all workers, regardless of the size of their employer or the duration of their employment, and would be funded by payroll contributions that are only 0.2% each by employers and employee (a mere 2 cents per ten dollars earned!).
The Chamber of Commerce and other conservative groups will undoubtedly label this bill a “job killer” and fight against it (as they did with the FMLA and California’s PFL program). But we need only look at the tremendous success of California’s Paid Family Leave program, and the change in attitude by the business community to support the program just a few years after its implementation. According to the Leaves That Pay report, the vast majority of employers surveyed about the impact of the PFL program responded that it had either a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on business productivity (89%), profitability/performance (91%), turnover (96%), and employee morale (99%). We can expect the same from the FAMILY Act.
The FAMILY Act will make it possible for more workers to make ends meet when they take much-needed time off to care for their own health and that of their loved ones. Society as a whole stands to benefit.
Consider contacting your Senators and Representative to voice your support for the FAMILY Act! By providing paid family and medical leave to all workers, we can ensure that people do not have to choose between making ends meet and caring for themselves, their children, and their sick relatives.