Jurisprudence

Five Years Since It Was First Introduced, It’s Time to Renew the New Family Leave Act

A woman holds a sign: "Fight For Paid Family Leave."
Supporters watch as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to promote his paid family leave initiative at a rally on March 10, 2016.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Five years ago on Wednesday, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act of 2013, or FAMILY Act, was first introduced in Congress. Remarkably, it still has not been passed into law. This bill would make sure that all of us can take paid time off from work for those critical moments of life: when we have or adopt a baby, or when we or our close family members are seriously ill. It is time to renew the promise of the FAMILY Act. The new Democratic leaders in the House will almost surely renew the bill and pass it in the House, while Republicans in the Senate should prove once and for all whether they are actually the party of family values.

How can it be that our country still doesn’t have a national paid family and medical leave law, when basically every other developed country does? A United Nations study of 185 countries revealed that we are in club of two, with Papua New Guinea, in failing to ensure paid leave for new mothers.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), passed in 1993, provides job protection for 12 weeks of leave—so workers can’t be fired for taking leave—but the law has stringent eligibility rules that leave almost half of workers uncovered. FMLA leave is also unpaid and therefore out of reach for many low- and middle-wage earners; in one 2016 Fed survey, almost half of adults said they couldn’t cover an emergency expense costing $400 without selling something or borrowing money.

Some employers voluntarily provide paid leave, but many do not: Only 14 percent of private sector workers had access to paid family leave in 2016, and only 41 percent had medical or short-term disability leave.

Hence the need for FAMILY Act, which would provide up to 12 weeks of partial pay when workers take time off for the birth or adoption of a child, for serious health conditions or that of a close family member, or for certain military caregiving and leave purposes. It would cover workers regardless of company size, and the leave would be funded through a modest payroll contribution split between the employer and worker.

On this half-decade anniversary of its initial introduction, let’s take a look back, and consider what’s happened in the intervening years.

In the absence of federal action, state and local governments have taken up the banner. Since 2013, three states—Massachusetts, New York, and Washington—plus Washington, D.C., have passed their own paid family and medical leave laws, joining three states—California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—that had already done so. Over 20 localities have passed paid sick days laws, most within the past five years. (Paid, or earned, sick leave laws grant a limited number of days, often in the five- to eight-day range, for needs related to both serious and every-day, short-term illnesses.)

Although initially resistant to the concept, employers have largely adapted in states with these laws. California was the first state to have a paid family and medical leave law, and a study six years later found that the program was “a non-event” for businesses, with minimal impact on morale, productivity, and profitability.

These advances at the state and local levels reflect the growing national consensus on the need for paid leave. A survey conducted in July found that 84 percent of voters supported a comprehensive national paid family and medical leave policy covering all people who work. Other surveys have found similar levels of support.

Democrats have been the champions of these laws at the local, state, and federal level. Widespread public support has led even some high-profile Republicans to get behind paid leave as a concept, from first daughter Ivanka Trump to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Unfortunately, they’ve come up with some wacky ideas about how to structure a program, like shoehorning it into the already-overburdened unemployment system, or making people borrow from their Social Security retirement money to cover parental leave. Meanwhile, many Republicans at the state level have been recalcitrant on the issue of paid leave. In Michigan, the Republican-controlled legislature’s power grab includes weakening a paid sick leave law passed months ago. In Texas, the state attorney general sued to stop Austin’s paid sick days law. And in more than a dozen jurisdictions, states have passed laws pre-empting local paid leave requirements.

What has happened in people’s lives in our country in the five years since the FAMILY Act was introduced, but not passed?

In 2016, more than 3.9 million babies were born. Assuming that number was typical, that works out to almost 20 million babies over the past five years. In 2012, over 119,000 children were adopted, for a likely total of almost 600,000 since 2013. How many parents didn’t get to spend bonding time caring for their new children? How many infants didn’t get as much time with their parents as they really needed to feel safe and comfortable? How many older kids, recently adopted, didn’t get enough time at home with their new parents?

Some more numbers to illustrate our situation: In 2018, an estimated 1.7 million people will have been diagnosed with cancer; in 2015, around 2.4 million people were injured in non-fatal car accidents; and there were over 2.7 million deaths nationally in 2016. Again, assuming these years were typical, this means that over the past five years there were around 8.5 million cancer diagnoses, 12 million non-fatal car accident injuries, and more than 13 million deaths. How many people couldn’t accompany someone they loved to chemotherapy, or couldn’t be there for their parent or spouse or sibling in hospice care? How many will forever regret missing the chance to say goodbye because they had to be at work to cover the costs of food and rent?

These statistics aren’t just numbers. Think of your own family and your friends’ families. Most of us have had a number of these events in our lives. We have children. Adopt a baby. Some kids have serious health issues, and others have more everyday ones like broken bones. We reach midlife and need surgery for a herniated disc or an ACL tear—and those are the positive scenarios, because some people face much more difficult diagnoses. Our parents grow old and need help.

Maybe there are some single childless twentysomethings somewhere, with parents in perfect health, who wouldn’t have needed any paid family or medical leave in the past five years. But most of us do. And anyhow, twentysomethings turn thirtysomething, so this fate awaits us all.

Could this be an issue where we can finally find common ground? There is overwhelming public support for paid leave. The Republican Party has long claimed to be the party of family values, and this is a chance to prove it. There are millions of families and lives that will be made better in concrete and visceral ways by this law’s passage. There is a tired and demoralized public, wanting to see signs of progress from Congress.

How to solve this? There’s the usual plan B: federal paralysis, with the states taking action to fill the gap.

But five years is enough. It’s time for plan A. It’s time to get this done.

Correction, Dec. 12, 2018: Due to an editing error, an earlier headline said it was the fifth anniversary of the last failed effort to pass a national family leave policy. The bill in question was reintroduced in 2015 and 2017 and failed.