Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Contortion Watch: Unpaid leave good; paid leave…not so much

Opponents of paid family leave have to walk a difficult tightrope: How to extol the virtues of a popular, successful program (the unpaid federal FMLA) while trying to whack down the idea that expanding on the idea to include a modest benefit for families is worthwhile.

Here’s one attempt. The comments so far make it clear that some readers, at least, don’t cotton to the contradiction in logic.

Our nation adopted the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993, as the country was just emerging from a recession. There were dire predictions that it would hurt business and even prevent women from getting jobs, but in fact, the reverse proved to be true. Adoption of FMLA was followed by 8 years of strong economic growth and unprecedented numbers of women joining the workforce.

Today, times have changed. Existing laws fall short of providing complete coverage to families. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides only unpaid time off, and only for workers in companies with more than fifty employees who have been with their employer for a full year. Last year, an estimated 1.3 million Washington workers weren’t covered by FMLA; 24,000 were eligible but couldn’t afford to take it.

California, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Hawaii provide all women in the workforce with 10-12 weeks of paid maternity leave through temporary disability insurance programs that have covered pregnancy disability since the 1970’s. Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, and Vermont have extended FMLA protections to cover workers in smaller firms.

Expanded leave is available to new parents in Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont. Almost every other country in the world provides new parents with paid time off work so that children get the best possible start during their first months of life.

Family Leave Insurance helps make sure family values come to work, ensuring that no parent is forced to choose between taking care of a new child and earning a living. Over in New Jersey, a new paid family leave law looks ready to pass. The arguments there sound oddly familiar.

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