Twenty years ago this month, former President Bill Clinton signed a bill into law aimed at helping parents take time off after the birth or adoption of a child. The reality, however, is that many Americans still can’t take time off, either because they’re not covered or simply don’t have financial means to do so.
The Family and Medical Leave Act requires some employers to provide up to three months of unpaid leave and the continuation of health benefits, but there are major gaps in who it covers.
For example, the law covers time off to care for a sick spouse, parent or child in addition to leave for a birth or adoption, but it is limited to opposite-sex spouses. As a recent New York Times article noted, about 40 percent of workers don’t reap the benefits of this law because only companies with 50 or more employees are required to abide by it. Said employees must also have worked for their company for at least twelve months and have logged 1,250 hours during the last year.
Those restrictions limit the number of eligible people, but there’s another critical issue at hand: The law offers time off, but doesn’t stipulate paid time off. Many people cannot afford to take unpaid leave, even when it’s technically an option. And the people who most often have access to paid sick leave – high-level managerial employees – are the workers least likely to need it financially.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States is the only advanced industrialized nation without a federal law providing new parents with options for paid family leave. Fewer than 12 percent of private-sector workers get paid family leave. Slightly more state and local government workers have access to some paid time off, but federal workers do not.
Proponents of paid leave argue it’s good policy.
“Beyond the marked health advantages, paid maternity leave yields economic gains in terms of reduced healthcare costs, reduced recruitment and retraining and improved long-term earnings for women,” the Times article said.
More than 30 countries offer at least a year of paid family leave, and as the Times pointed out, most of Europe and Central Asia offer at least half a year of paid leave to mothers. According to a United Nations report, most South American nations offer significant paid leave to new moms. Chile, for example, offers 18 weeks, with time allotted daily for breastfeeding children once the mother returns to work.
In the United States, Latinos are especially limited when it comes to family leave.
According to the left-leaning Center for American Progress, which supports a plan to offer three months of paid family leave, Latinos and other minorities are less likely than other demographics to take advantage of family leave. Some don’t know it’s a possibility and others work jobs that are less likely to offer paid leave or work jobs that offer that flexibility.
“Access to parental leave among Latinos is the lowest of any racial group despite their being more likely to have young children in need of care or supervision,” reads a CAP report.
Only one in four Latinos has access to paid parental leave. And the argument made by some lawmakers that workers can simply take paid vacation when they have children is flawed in part because less than half of Latino workers actually have access to paid vacation.
According to the CAP report, nearly 50 percent of blacks and Latinos are part of working-class families that bring in less than $40,000 per year, which is twice the number of whites and Asian Americans living under the same circumstances.
“Low-wage work typically offers fewer benefits and less flexibility, which further illuminates why Latinos disproportionately lack benefits,” according to CAP. “Despite being among the most vulnerable populations economically, susceptible to falling into poverty with even one lost paycheck, low-wage workers have the least protections.”
Lawmakers have floated Ideas about reducing the number of hours of work required to be eligible for leave at the federal level, as well as the possibility of including companies with fewer than 50 employees under the current law. But mostly the debate has been left to individual states. And not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.
A 2009 Daily Beast post argues that paid family leave “alienates” women and hurts the economy because companies are less likely to hire women when they’re required to give them paid time off. But a 2012 Forbesarticle hits back at that idea and notes that, in many cases, paid family leave is actually funded by employees through small monthly paycheck deductions.
California and New Jersey have their own laws in place that offer some paid leave, but they’re the exception, not the rule. The CAP report urges lawmakers to work on a broader federal paid leave law.
“Inclusive policies for workers are necessary as the need for time away from work to recover from an illness or care for a family member is nearly universal,” reads the report. “It is high time that our workplace policies reflected that fact.”
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