The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires that employers provide 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for caring for a newborn, adopted child, ill family member or your own health conditions. However, eligibility requirements exclude 40 percent of workers and 46 percent of eligible workers can’t afford to take unpaid leave. In 2017 only 6 percent of those in the lowest paying quartile of jobs were able to access paid family leave (PFL) while 24 percent of those in the highest paying quartile had access to PFL. Providing paid family leave increases the usage of leave especially in underserved populations.
I am a mother of 2 children ages 10 months and 4 years. I work full time, and although we are a dual income household, I am the primary earner for our family of 4. I also help to support my parents that also live with me. I am incredibly privileged to work for an employer that offers 3 weeks paid parental leave and the remainder of the twelve weeks is covered by short term disability and PTO. It is however a newer development and I had unpaid leave for my first child. My husband I had the luxury to plan for this leave and were able to save a good amount knowing we would have to rely on his income alone. Despite planning it was a huge burden on our finances juggling a mortgage, student loan debt, car loan, medical expenses of having a child, and getting all the necessary things to care for an infant not to mention those unforeseen expenses that pop up. I can’t even imagine the hardship for those that don’t have the means or time to save for extended leave. It is great to have job protected leave, but it isn't enough.
Leave taken to care for children after birth has been shown to offer many health benefits. Unpaid leave through FMLA has been correlated with increases in birth weight and decreases in infant mortality but only for college educated married mothers, which are the ones that can most readily utilize unpaid leave. Paid leave funded through Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) was correlated with decreases in low birth weight births and early term births especially for unmarried black mothers, indicating how expanding paid leave increases use of leave for underserved populations. In California following the introduction of PFL policies, exclusive breastfeeding increased by 3-5% and breastfeeding in early infancy increased by 10-20%. It increased the amount of children that received early childhood vaccinations on time and attendance at well-child checks. They also saw several long term health benefits including decreases in childhood obesity, ADHD, and hearing related problems especially in disadvantaged mothers that previously would not be able to afford unpaid leave. After the introduction of PFL in Canada and Europe in 1977 they found decreased high school dropout rates, increases in future wages of the children, and increase school performance at age 16.
In addition to some of the benefits listed above, it is estimated that implementing a national paid leave policy in the United States could reduce infant deaths by 576 per year and a decrease of 288 deaths in the post-neonatal period, which are likely a conservative estimates. PFL policies have the potential to not only improve millions of Americans’ health and quality of life but could save hundreds of lives. This is not a partisan issue, it should matter to all of us. We cannot afford not to support and fight for legislation to expand access to paid family leave.
Currently there is a bill that has been introduced called the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. It would expand access to PFL and cover workers in all companies regardless of their size. It would be funded by payroll contributions. Please contact your representatives to let them know that you support the FAMILY Act. (See our blog post Tell Your Reps! Support the FAMILY Act for Paid Leave)