Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Low-wage workers have limited access to paid leave

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Evaluating Family and Medical Leave Insurance for Washington State

While few workers have a designated paid family leave benefit, many do have limited amounts of paid leave available as vacation, sick leave, or paid time off. However, access to paid leave benefits varies across the labor force.

In general, low-wage and part-time workers, workers without advanced degrees, and women of color are unlikely to receive any type of workplace benefit, including paid leave, which presents significant barriers to economic stability. Limited access to leave benefits can be especially challenging for low-income families.

Little more than half of the U.S. workforce with earnings in the bottom 25% has access to paid vacation leave, and just 36% have paid sick leave. Access to paid family leave is especially limited – just one in 25 workers with earnings in the bottom 10% receives paid family leave benefits, compared to one in five with earnings in the top 10%. Similarly, only 6% of part-time workers in the U.S. had access to paid family leave in 2010, versus 14% of full-time workers.


Workers in low-wage jobs often deal with unpredictable scheduling and limited flexibility. Irregular hours can be particularly difficult for workers who cannot afford consistent child care or homecare services for an ill or aging parent. Further, low-income families face greater demands for family care. Due to limited availability of resources, they are more likely to act as caregivers for elderly relatives. Children from low-income families are more likely to have chronic health issues and developmental difficulties – conditions that often require more intensive care.

Juggling inflexible schedules and demanding care needs can put strain on any household. But for low-income families, this kind of juggling act is more often managed by a single parent: two-thirds of low-income parents are the sole head of the household. In Washington, six in ten families led by a single mother lived below 185% of the poverty level in 2010 – that’s an annual income of $32,500 or less for one parent with two children.

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