Building Winnable Strategies for Paid Family Leave in the States

Major progress towards paid family leave in the United States was achieved in 2002.

In September, California became the first state in the country to adopt a comprehensive paid family leave policy. Beginning in July of 2004, workers in California will be able to take up to 6 weeks off work and receive about 55% of their regular pay while caring for a newborn or newly adopted child, or when a family member is seriously ill.

Washington’s Family Care Act, signed into law in March 2002, has received less media attention, but is also an important step forward. Beginning January 1, 2003, Washington workers will have the right to use their sick leave, vacation, or personal time off to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, parent, parent-in-law, or grandparent.

These gains were made after many years of advocacy by broad-based coalitions across the United States. American workers are facing a time and income squeeze that makes balancing the routine demands of work and family increasingly difficult. When a new baby or family illness comes along, the balancing act frequently collapses under the additional pressure. Few working families have the resources to forego a regular income while spending the first crucial months with a new child or caring for an ill family member.

Most parents –mothers as well as fathers –participate now in the workforce. Meanwhile, wages and benefit coverage have declined for many workers over the past several decades, while the number of hours worked annually has increased. Some individual employers have begun to provide family leave benefits. However, without governmental action the majority of American workers will continue to lack the flexibility they need in their jobs to adequately care for their families, and few will have access to paid time off during times of critical family need.

In 1993, after nearly a decade of advocacy, the federal government established a basic platform for family leave with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA provides for up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for workers in larger companies with a new baby, a seriously ill family member, or a serious medical condition of their own. Overall, the FMLA has proven to be beneficial for American workers and benign for most employers, but the law still leaves roughly 40% of workers unprotected and fails to assure income support for workers on family leave.

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