Paid Leave: All in the FAMILY

Since 21 years ago today, when the Family and Medical Leave Act—providing workers unpaid, job-protected leaves to deal with personal or family illness or a new child—was signed by President Bill Clinton, there’s been little further action in Congress. That changed recently with the introduction of the Family Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D‑N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), which would create a system of paid family leave financed by a payroll tax evenly split between employers and employees. A good idea, but, for now, passage seems a long way off.

The real action right now is in the states.

On January 1, Rhode Island joined California and New Jersey in offering workers paid family leave. New York and Massachusetts have paid‑leave bills pending, and Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire have formed task forces to study the issue. Several other states, including North Carolina, Colorado and Oregon, have considered paid family leave and may move bills forward again.

The California leave is structured as an insurance program much like Social Security, financed by a 1 percent employee-paid payroll tax. Workers on paid leave are provided up to six weeks of partial wage replacement: 55 percent of weekly earnings, up to a maximum benefit of $1,011 per week. Had advocates succeeded in getting employers to also kick in, the benefit would have been higher.

Perhaps the biggest downside is that the California system lacks job protection. Unlike the federal FMLA, there are no rights to continued employment or benefits, or to reinstatement at the end of covered leave. And among other drawbacks, the amount of wage replacement is too low for many workers to be able to afford to take the leave.

Congress needs to pass a comprehensive federal law. Urge your representatives to support the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act (FAMILY Act). Access to paid family leave ought not be dependent on where one lives.

This is an excerpt from a longer piece in the forthcoming issue of Ms. magazine—join the Ms. community today and don’t miss another word!

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Martha Burk is money editor at Ms.