On family leave, most states don’t make the grade

Parents face numerous challenges adjusting to life with a brand new bundle of joy. In the United States, those challenges are intensified by the lack federal paid family leave policies – pushing parents to strain an already tight family budget or cut bonding time short to return to work.

In fact, the United States stands virtually alone in failing to guarantee even unpaid leave to all new parents. In 178 other nations, new mothers are guaranteed paid time off, and in 54, new fathers are guaranteed the same.

So what kind of family leave does the United States guarantee? Under the Federal and Medical Leave Act, eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave off to take care of a new born or a newly adopted child, to care for their spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition, or to recover from their own serious health condition. Yet fewer than 50 percent of workers qualify as eligible under FMLA rules, leaving the majority of workers to make difficult choices between family needs and economic stability.

Furthermore, in an economy where two incomes are essential to make ends meet, unpaid leave simply isn’t an option for many working families. Americans agree on this point, too: 76% believe businesses should provide paid family and medical leave.

The complete lack of federal action on paid family and medical leave has led states to develop their own paid leave policies. A recent report from the National Partnership for Women and Families analyzed state policies  and graded each state based on their laws supporting new parents. The report shows that while a handful of states have made some progress, most, have not.

Specifically, 18 states failed outright, meaning they haven’t enacted policies that go beyond the federal minimum. Another 16 states received just above a failing grade.

The news isn’t all bad, though; workers in Connecticut and the District of Columbia have access to paid sick time for medical appointments both prenatal and postnatal, and for further appointments throughout childhood. And in California and New Jersey, two states with comprehensive family and medical leave insurance, new parents have up to six weeks of income support after the arrival of a new child.

Washington State is making progress, too, earning a B for its family leave policies. Washington’s policies expand upon federal policy by providing for job-protected medical leave for pregnancy, more flexible use of sick leave, and a broader definition of family to include register domestic partners. Washington also enacted a paid parental leave program in 2007 — though the program has yet to take effect due to a lack of funding and will need to be modernized to best meet the needs of today’s working families.

State-level advancements do make a difference. Before FMLA became law in 1993, 23 states had enacted family leave policies. If more states continue to advance paid leave policies, the potential for federal-level action could grow, and provide valuable benefits to children, seniors, businesses, women, and workers.

Research continues to demonstrate the importance of paid family leave and its positive benefits for new moms and dads. It’s time for the United States to join the 178 nations who already have paid leave policies in place, because for the millions of Americans who lack access today, the wait has already been too long.

-By EOI intern Travis Crayton

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