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Let’s Seize Paid Family and Medical Leave Momentum and Make the 2020s the Decade When America Values Families

It’s now 2020, but for most people living in the United States, America’s work and family policies are stuck in the 1990s. Our country’s national leave law, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), offers only unpaid, job-protected leave and covers just 60 percent of the workforce when families need to care for a new child, address a serious personal or family health issue, or address the deployment or care of a military service member. Forty percent are carved out of the law’s protections for working too few hours, being too new at their jobs or working for a small employer.

Vicki Shabo

Independent of FMLA protections, check out these stats:

  • More than 113 million workers lack access to employer-provided paid family leave – and, for many, leave without pay means either no leave at all, or leave with substantial negative financial effects.
  • American families lose an estimated $20.6 billion each year in household income because they do not have paid family and medical leave.
  • The people most affected are women workers (who are disproportionately likely to provide care), in jobs that pay low wages and offer little security, and Black and Latinx workers.

In hopeful news, America’s paid family and medical leave gaps are finally getting the attention they deserve. The fight to win access to paid family leave is often perceived as an issue affecting parents and babies – and it does. Paid leave improves infant and maternal health, promotes attachment and helps set children up for success.

But paid leave also offers security to families with children well beyond their earliest months. For example, a recent study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and Caring Across Generations found that 11 million people in the United States – eighty percent of whom are prime working age Millennials and GenXers – are the sandwich generations: both caring for an ill, injured or disabled family member and for a minor child living in their home.

Fortunately, in 2019, there were bright spots that hasten progress toward a national solution to the country’s paid family and medical leave failings. In my view, a national plan should cover all working people, for all serious family and medical needs outlined in the FMLA for a reasonable period of time, with adequate wage replacement and employment protections.

As a senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at New America, who has been deeply involved in helping to make and mark change, I believe we’re closer than ever to that reality – though there is still much work to be done. Here are ten top highlights of 2019 – and a look ahead to the new opportunities and complexities ahead in 2020.

  1. In December 2019, more than 2 million federal workers gained 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn, newly adopted child, or newly placed foster child. Still, this solution is incomplete. Federal workers who need to take caregiving leave for other FMLA reasons – to care for a seriously ill or injured loved one, to address their own serious health issue or to deal with a military service member’s deployment or injury – were left behind.
  2. Oregon and Connecticut – passed incredibly strong, comprehensive new statewide paid family and medical leave laws, and the nation’s two oldest paid leave laws in California and New Jersey were expanded. Oregon, Connecticut and New Jersey set new bars on wage replacement rates, family members covered and the reasons for which paid leave can be used. California’s law was expanded to include more weeks, and additional changes related to wage replacement and job security may lie ahead in 2020.
  3. The U.S. House of Representatives held three hearings on paid family and medical leave. At each hearing, members of Congress asked sophisticated questions that will get us closer to a strong paid family and medical leave program for every working person in the United States. Despite all eyes on impeachment, the media covered the December paid leave hearing in the House Oversight and Reform Committee – including this attention-grabbing exchange where Representative Ocasio-Cortez made the point that dogs are allowed to bond with their puppies for a longer period of time than most birthing parents get in paid leave to bond with their newborns.
  4. Paid leave is rightly coming to be understood as an issue of economic justice, racial justice, gender justice, disability rights, rural opportunity, health equity and senior’s security. Presidential candidates, advocacy groups and media outlets have started to frame paid leave in new, important ways. It’s no longer just a “women’s” issue, even if women would disproportionately benefit.
  5. Nationally, access to employer-provided paid family leave rose – 19 percent of workers now have paid family leave through their jobs, up from 13 percent five years ago. Still, that’s nearly eight in 10 who do not – and the increase we’ve seen in the past five years has been concentrated among the most highly paid and most highly sought after workers. Workers with earnings in the highest-decile saw a 12-percentage point increase in employer-provided paid family leave between 2014 and 2019 (from 22 percent to 34 percent of workers); however, workers with earnings in the lowest decile saw an increase of just 2 percentage points (from 4 percent to 6 percent). This only reinforces the need for a national baseline paid family and medical leave program that reduces economic inequality rather than allowing market forces to exacerbate it.
  6. The FAMILY Act, the national paid leave bill that advocates and business leaders have been working to advance for the past six years, gained unprecedented support in Congress. The FAMILY Act would create a national paid family and medical leave program that guarantees virtually every working person up to 12 weeks of paid leave in an affordable, sustainable way. The bill now has bipartisan co-sponsorship in the U.S. House of Representatives – and more than 200 House members as cosponsors and 35 Senate cosponsors overall. In addition, the Paid Leave For All coalition formed to build a campaign to help pass the FAMILY Act. (Full disclosure: I’m proud to be an advisor to this group. Check them out here!)
  7. Virtually every Democratic presidential candidate endorsed the FAMILY Act as a no-brainer policy and some have gone further – setting up paid leave as a key general election issue. The New America candidate tracker on paid leave and other issues shows the breadth of candidates’ support. This builds on momentum from 2016, the year that 12 weeks of national paid family and medical leave was included for the first time in the Democratic Party’s platform. Still, I and others are disappointed that paid leave and related workplace gender justice issues are not getting the attention they deserve in the presidential debates, and I worry that we risk losing opportunities for swift action in the next Administration and Congress if this doesn’t change. It’s also significant that President Trump is using paid leave to appeal to women voters – but his approach falls far short, looking only at paid leave for new parents and without a new funding stream, and comes amidst other harmful policies affecting women, children and all families.
  8. Conservatives, business organizations and industry groups are engaging in paid leave in new ways – but there’s not yet agreement on a comprehensive, sustainable paid leave proposal like the FAMILY Act. In Congress, there are now multiple proposals, mostly backed by Republicans, to offer income replacement to new parents. These proposals would force harmful trade-offs with Social Security, a no-interest loan funded by receiving smaller Child Tax Credit payments for a decade after a child’s birth or adoption, or tax-free savings accounts – and all would fail to meet the needs of workers beyond new parents. The big business lobby is also getting engaged in new ways, with the Business Roundtable last month sending a letter to the President and Congress urging them to adopt a comprehensive federal paid family and medical leave law. The details of their vision for federal policy are problematic, but the fact that there is organized business interest in a national policy is a testament to the power of the issue and the movement.
  9. Male allies are stepping up – and a narrative about men’s desire to provide care is growing. Alexis Ohanian worked with Dove Men + Care and my colleagues at Paid Leave for the United States to spend a day on Capitol Hill talking about why fathers need paid leave. Men and paid leave was also a topic of an innovative new research study released in November by my colleagues at the New America Better Life Lab.
  10. The media is covering paid leave more robustly than ever before. It’s been exciting to see influencers like Katy Tur take on this issue, and to see coverage that spans mainstream media, business and the economy, culture, sports and conservative and progressive news sources alike.

Looking ahead, 2020 can and should be the year when paid leave breaks through further. With committed organizations and individuals all working together, I’m hoping we can celebrate the following milestones in the next year:

  • The FAMILY Act passing the House of Representatives, after a robust Ways & Means committee process to consider the bill and potentially improve it based on what we have learned from state programs;
  • Two states, likely Colorado and Virginia, adopting new paid family and medical leave laws, and smooth implementation of new laws in Washington state and the District of Columbia;
  • New private sector allies stepping up to become FAMILY Act supporters, joining the larger and smaller businesses that are already on board;
  • More influencers in business, media, sports and entertainment elevating paid leave as a key issue;
  • An election cycle marked by unprecedented attention at the presidential, congressional and state office levels from candidates, media and voters, with paid leave squarely on their agendas; and
  • More on-the-ground organizing of affected workers and grasstops local influencers and businesses that helps to move and excite federal lawmakers and builds the base for the passage and implementation of a strong national paid family and medical leave program.

We all have a stake in a more family-friendly country. Let’s make the 2020s the decade where we work together to make paid family and medical leave a reality for everyone, no matter where they live or work or the job they hold.

Vicki Shabo
Senior Fellow, Paid Leave Policy and Strategy, Better Life Lab at New America | Website

Vicki Shabo is a senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at New America, a think tank in Washington, DC. She has testified before Congress about paid family and medical leave, workforce and gender equity multiple times and has been involved in the development and passage of state and local paid leave programs; she has also advised private sector companies and leaders on paid leave and other workforce policies. Prior to joining New America, Shabo was vice president for workplace policy and strategy at the National Partnership for Women & Families. The views expressed here are hers.

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