Life is unpredictable. You never know what’s coming. But you can usually count getting some curveballs thrown your way.
Maybe your grandmother falls ill and you’re the only person in the family who’s in a position to take care of her. Maybe you are diagnosed with a serious illness and need to take time off work to get treatment. Or maybe you and your partner decide to adopt – but you both work full-time and can’t take unpaid leave.
At some point in our lives, most people will need to take off an extended period of time to deal with a family or medical issue.
Despite this, only 12% of workers in America receive paid family leave through their jobs. And the lucky ones that do are disproportionately well-educated, high-earning, and male.
But what about the rest of us? What if we fall ill, have a child, or need to take care of a loved one in need?
Unless we have another breadwinner who can support the family, our choices are generally few: a) keep working to the detriment of ourselves and/or others, or b) take unpaid leave (or quit our jobs) and face financial hardship.
Current U.S. Law Makes Taking Time Off Available Only to the Few
Presently, 1993’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) sets the precedent for workers’ leave policies. FMLA guarantees twelve weeks of unpaid leave to employees at companies employing more than fifty people. Unpaid leave, mind you, and nothing at all for employees of smaller businesses.
Unfortunately, a lot of us cannot afford to go for twelve weeks (or even three, for that matter!), without pay.
Low-income parents to a newborn are a classic example. In this situation, at least one parent is generally forced to leave work (and lose money) in order to care for their child.
But this phenomenon goes far beyond new parenthood – the same financial limitations are placed on caretakers tending to sick or injured family members. And women often feel the brunt of this state of affairs.
Paid Family Leave is More Important than Ever for Women
Research shows that four in ten households with children are headed by women who are the main or only breadwinner for their family – numbers that have risen considerably since 1960, when women made up just 11 percent of our nation’s familial wage earners.
But while the demographics of the American workforce have drastically changed, American paid leave policies have not.
And because women are statistically more likely to become caretakers – making up an estimated 59 to 75% of family or informal caregivers – they urgently need laws that guarantee paid family leave.
Paid Parental Leave in the U.S. and Abroad
In Sweden, new moms and dads are allotted 480 paid days of leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child (to be split between them and used at any time before their child hits eight years old).
Compare these numbers to those of American leave policies, under which new moms receive a whopping zero days of paid time off per child. And don’t even think about mentioning time off for new dads over here.
There is no other industrialized nation in the world that does not guarantee working mothers paid time off after giving birth to or adopting a child.
In fact, America joins Papua New Guinea as the only other country on the globe that doesn’t mandate some amount of paid time off for new mothers.
But here in the land of Stars and Stripes, an astounding 33% of all new moms take no formal time off after giving birth – because they can’t afford to.
And mothers aren’t the only ones who will benefit from paid time off legislation. Working fathers are becoming increasingly vocal about needing time off to spend with their new children. In fact, 50% of working dads say that it is hard for them to balance their family responsibilities with their work life.
The Big Picture on Caretaking
Currently, less than 40% of American workers are eligible for an employer-provided temporary disability program.
Due to this, as well as the fact that so few American workers are eligible for employer-paid family leave, many people are forced to make an impossible choice: take unpaid leave to care for a sick loved one (or see to their own care) or continue to work to earn the money they need to keep their families afloat.
But advocacy groups like the National Partnership for Women and Families believe that they’ve found a better option for working families in the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act).
The FAMILY Act, Congressional legislation sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, would provide all eligible employees with as much as twelve weeks of paid family leave.
So just what does this paid time off entail? Let’s debunk some of the bogus ideas out there.
Paid Family Leave Is Not a Vacation
The FAMILY Act ensures that the paid leave it guarantees can only be used for its intended purposes, such as the individual’s need to deal with their own serious illness or health condition; the illness of a spouse, domestic partner, parent, or child; the birth or adoption of a child; or the injury of a military family member or other crisis stemming from their service.
The law is not written to allow families to take sabbatical or vacation. It is written to deal strictly with health-related issues.
Paid Family Leave Is Not Welfare
Critics of welfare don’t have agency to condemn paid time off legislation.
Paid leave is not an entitlement; in fact, it’s an earned benefit that works similarly to other benefit systems like Social Security.
Employees must have paid into the system and worked for an established period of time before they are able to collect benefits.
Paid Family Leave Is Cost-Effective for Workers
Paid family leave actually ends up saving workers money.
The FAMILY Act’s insurance program is paid for through payroll contributions from both employers and their workers, with an extremely low premium of two cents for every $10 in income. For most workers, this equals less than two dollars per week.
So what do the numbers boil down to? The gratifying truth that your paycheck won’t take a hit if this legislation is passed.
And luckily, the paid family leave model works in practice, not only in theory. When a similar program was put in place in California, two-thirds of employees that benefitted didn’t even see a change in their wages.
On the other hand, when workers who don’t have access to paid leave are forced to take time off because of family issues or illness, they are much more likely to fall into poverty and turn to public assistance.
How Businesses Deal with Paid Time Off Policies
On the business end, some companies have seen the value of retaining their staff that needs time off by offering comprehensive family leave time.
Google, for example, cut their new-mother attrition by half when they implemented a five-month maternity leave policy. But not every employer is as generous as Google – which is why we need a national policy that makes sure all businesses treat their workers right.
Although feared and criticized by some members of the business community, many business owners nationwide – ranging from the founder of Kinko’s to the CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council – openly support the FAMILY Act. And in a real life example, California’s paid family leave law has actually had a positive effect on business in the state.
Equally impressive, more small business owners stand in favor of a national paid family leave program than against it.
Society Benefits from Paid Family Leave
Access to paid family leave benefits many different groups in society, sometimes in unexpected ways:
- Children and infants whose parents have access to paid family leave are much more likely do have better health outcomes and do better in school.
- Their parents are less likely to need the help of government safety net programs and less like to declare bankruptcy.
- Women are more likely to continue work after being caretakers, and less likely to need welfare.
- New mothers who are able to take time off after giving birth or adopting a child are much less likely to suffer from depression.
- Infants whose parents were able to stay home with them during their first year are more likely to do well in school and the job market.
How many of those situations might apply to your life?
The FAMILY Act and You: How to Get Involved
There are a lot of ways that the FAMILY Act might be able to help you or someone you know, as illustrated in the examples throughout this article. If you want to get involved in helping paid family leave become a nationwide reality, don’t hesitate to jump in.
People are organizing nationwide behind the FAMILY Act. To send a message to your representative asking him or her to support the Act, use this handy tool from the Association of American University Women.
However, given the current gridlock in Congress over this issue, working to change state policy may be one of your best options. Check out local coalitions in your state that are working on family leave issues or Paid Sick Days campaigns.
Alternately, visit websites of organizations like the Labor Project for Working Families, Family Values @ Work, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, or the National Partnership for Women and Families for more ways to take action.
Simply put, paid family leave leads to a more successful America – an America with smarter children, happier parents, less poverty, and a stronger workforce. An America that supports its working women.
There are many women and men already dedicating their lives to this fight – and it makes total sense, because baby, we deserve it!
Danica Johnson is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism and the Communications Manager at the Coalition on Human Needs, an alliance of national organizations working together to promote public policies addressing the needs of low-income and other vulnerable populations. Living in Washington, DC, this West Coast native uses her free time to write for her blog Duckyfem, practice yoga and spend as much time with animals and in nature as possible. Follow her on Twitter @duckyfem and read her articles here.