This year is the 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which enables qualifying employees to take unpaid but protected leaves from their workplace. While this was a good start, in the years since, paid leave legislation at the federal level has stalled and women have paid the price. Luckily, California has decided to do something about this.
As of January 1 of this year, California has improved its statewide Paid Family Leave (PFL) to increase the wage replacement rate, which is dependent on income, to about 60-70%, and removes the 7-day waiting period. About 18.3 million workers in California have access to the state’s paid leave program, “which is funded through mandatory employee payroll deductions” at qualifying workplaces. Those who utilize this benefit can receive up to 6 weeks of partial pay in order to care for a seriously ill family member, or welcome a new child into the family (either by birth, adoption, or foster care).
The state’s program, which started in 2002 and has seen improvements over the years, is one of only three like it within the country. Citizens who do not live in California, New Jersey, or Rhode Island must depend on the FMLA, which has restrictions that make it hard to qualify. Additionally, the level of support is inadequate. This is unacceptable for a developed country considered a world leader so far as GDP per capita. It also goes against the campaign promises of President Trump, who in 2016 campaigned on a six-week paid parental leave, and outlined a plan to be funded by cutting back on waste and abuse in the Unemployment Insurance Office in last year’s budget proposal. Unsurprisingly, he hasn’t said much about it since, save for a pithy mention in his first State of the Union speech: “Let us support working families by supporting paid family leave.” Despite this, he has not showed support for the paid leave legislation most likely to reach his desk.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has introduced a bill (the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act) that would create a national payroll-funded paid leave program. Unfortunately, with 27 cosponsors and various grassroots and national-level organizations behind it, the legislation has gone nowhere.
Every year almost 4 million children are born in our country. That’s four million mothers who have to figure out if they can afford to take time off to bond with their child and heal after giving birth. Everyday, more families adopt, choose to foster children, or nurse sick relatives. Our country needs to address their concerns, many of which would be answered with paid parental and family leave. If Congress will not act, then the states must. Thankfully, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and California have shown it is possible, and successful.
Women bear the brunt of child and family care responsibilities in all cultures. More and more of them are opting out of marriage and parenthood, as each role will subject them to unpaid caregiving (often of their husband’s family members as well as their own parents). As women forgo marriage and childbearing, Western industrialized countries are experiencing birth rates below replacement levels. Any country facing this demographic shift needs to carefully consider giving women support for these important services. Otherwise, more and more women will say, “no thank you” to marriage and parenthood. So, what kind of a country do we want?