Paid Leave in the US

Por Lara Merling
July 2013
What do the United States, Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland have in common? The answer is that these are the only countries that do not require employers to provide paid family leave. After Australia passed a parental leave law in 2010 offering 126 days of paid leave to new parents, the US remained the only industrialized country in the world to not offer such benefits.  Attempts to promote policies offering paid family leave in the US have been continuously rejected by conservatives on the grounds that they are not good for business.

Amidst the heated debate on the Defense of Marriage Act, the Republican National Committee issued a statement declaring their opposition to same-sex marriage based on the grounds that “union of one man and one woman [… ] is the optimum environment in which to raise healthy children for the future of America.”  Despite the questionable logic behind this argument, the question remains of why, if family values are so important for it, the Republican Party opposes policies that would provide essential benefits to the parents that are supposed to raise those healthy children? Research has shown this kind of policies, which provide paid family leave, have a positive effect on child and family health. Some of the known gains are lower child mortality, lower rates of post-natal depression in mothers, and a greater likelihood that mothers will breastfeed their children.

In most of the world, paid family time is an implied benefit that allows employees to take copious amounts of paid leave in order to care for a newborn baby or an ill close relative. For example, a new mother would receive up to 280 days of paid leave in the UK, 84 days of paid leave in India, while in Sweden both parents can share 480 days of paid leave. So, we can ask ourselves, why does a developed country like the United Stated not provide such benefits? 

Currently, in the United States the only federal benefit is that certain employees are eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993 and offers job-protected leave to eligible employees.  To qualify for the unpaid family leave one must have worked for at least one year for the same employer, who has at least 50 employees. While this bill is a start, it leaves about half of all workers uncovered and, even amongst those covered, it still excludes those who cannot afford to give up their paychecks for 12 weeks. The act mostly leaves out the low-wage workers who do not qualify, or do not have the funds for simply not working, forcing them to choose between being able to care for a relative in need and receiving a paycheck.

I think it is essential to mention the fact that some states have taken it upon themselves to draft legislation that will provide at least some sort of paid leave for families. California and New Jersey have both passed laws that can provide for up to 6 to 8 weeks of paid family leave. Both states have built up onto already existing disability programs, labeling pregnancy as a “temporary disability” to provide the funds necessary for the paid leaves. Even though I applaud the initiatives taken by these states, I believe their legislation is still lacking and exclusive, omitting a large amount of workers who do not qualify for the programs. Furthermore, the state level legislation does not guarantee job protection for those who choose to take advantage of these benefits. What these states have proven though is that such programs can turn from fantasy into reality accompanied by the appropriate legislation.

The main argument against offering paid family leave at a federal level is that it would be costly and bad for business. The countries and even the states that have adopted such policies have proven this wrong. In fact, offering employees the option to take paid leave makes it almost certain that people caring for a sick relative or having a baby will return to work afterwards. This reduces the rate at which employers lose workers and avoids the high training costs that new employees require.  In fact, most top employers already choose to offer such benefits, to assure that their highly skilled workers will remain at their companies. Furthermore, knowing that there is the option of paid family leave in the case of an emergency increases the worker morale as well their productivity.

All things considered, I urge federal legislators to pay attention to the importance of this issue that aims to protect families, whose values everyone appears to be concerned with, and draft a plan that will provide them the much needed paid family leave. States have already shown that it is possible and affordable to create new programs, or build upon existing disability or unemployment programs. With an increase of only 2 pennies per hour on the payroll tax for employers, up to five weeks of paid leave can be provided. This seems quite affordable to me.

The facts illustrate that instituting a policy for paid family leave touches on issues such as assuring family well-being, reducing inequality, and increasing labor productivity. So, regardless of what the Supreme Court will rule on which couples can enjoy family benefits, policies that define and extend those benefits should be put in place. Since it seems that both liberal and conservatives are concerned with the well being of families, I hope that the next political debate will be on how to protect the family unit and not on how to define it.

*The author is a student at Bard College.

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