Paid family leave, explained

Becoming a parent is a huge undertaking — financially and emotionally — and most people can't afford to take extended time off from work when a baby arrives

"How much time are you going to take off?"

It's one of the first questions people ask working parents-to-be once they start sharing the news that a little one is on the way. But what those well-intentioned people don't realize is just how stressful that topic can be, especially if you don't get paid family leave — the shorthand, catch-all term for the varied and valuable programs that enable parents to draw a salary from their employers while taking time off to care for a new child.

These days, paid family leave is in the midst of some major changes. Companies are making headlines for packages that wow with their progressiveness and generosity, while an increasing number of states are considering or have passed laws that pick up the slack where federal law falls short. All of this momentum is fueling a national conversation around whether it's time to revamp America's paid family leave policies and attitudes. But unless you're a parent or planning to become one soon, you may not have had reason until now to consider the issue. So what exactly is everyone talking about? Here's what you need to know:

Do all Americans get paid family leave?
No. Federal law only mandates unpaid leave, and not for everyone. The country's baseline law, the Family and Medical Leave Act, guarantees new parents, those with gravely ill family members, and people who are dealing with serious illnesses themselves the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period without losing their jobs. It was drafted in 1984 by the Women's Legal Defense Fund (now the National Partnership for Women and Families) and faced an uphill battle in Congress for nearly a decade. The legislation finally passed in 1991, only to have President George H.W. Bush veto it when it crossed his desk. Ditto in 1992. In February 1993, President Bill Clinton made the FMLA the first bill that he signed, a little more than two weeks into his administration.

As groundbreaking as the law was — President Clinton says it's the piece of legislation for which he has received more thanks from citizens than any other — it was also meant to be a first step toward a more comprehensive solution. That expansion never came, however, and the act comes with a number of asterisks that limit its application. It only applies to businesses with 50 or more employees, public agencies, and elementary and secondary schools. Employees must have worked for their employer for a year to qualify for its protections. And they must have worked 1,250 hours in that time frame, or roughly 24 hours per week, a caveat that can leave part-time workers out of luck.

Why is paid family leave so important?
Because becoming a parent is a huge undertaking — financially and emotionally — and most people can't afford to take extended time off from work when a baby arrives. The health benefits are many, from giving mothers time to recover after delivery to allowing critical bonding to take place between parent and infant. Studies have shown paid family leave can reduce infant mortality by as much as 10 percent; increases the likelihood that a child receives well-baby care visits and vaccinations; and increases the rate and duration of breast feeding. Moms' mental health also improves; one study found that women who were exposed to a more generous maternity leave policy were 18 percent less likely to suffer from depression 30 years down the road, when they were 50 or older.

How does America compare to other countries?
Not favorably. The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn't have some kind of universal paid maternity leave program. For comparison, consider the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of countries with highly developed economies. While the particulars vary, the majority of nations in the organization pay mothers a full or partial salary for between 10 and 20 weeks of leave; at the upper end, the U.K. and Greece offer more than 35 weeks each. Worldwide, America's stingy policy keeps company only with Papua New Guinea, says the International Labor Organization.

So what are we doing about it?
In the decades since the FMLA's passage, some states and even cities have taken it upon themselves to provide supplementary measures. California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have enacted paid family leave laws (though Washington has so far left its program unfunded). All offer partial pay, albeit for varying lengths of time. New Jersey offers two-thirds pay for six weeks, for example, while California provides six weeks at 55 percent salary. That's where San Francisco stepped in this past April, approving a measure that requires businesses with 20 or more workers to pay the 45 percent of wages not covered by the state's plan.

New York's paid family and medical leave plan, also passed in April, is the most robust. Once fully implemented — it will be phased in starting in January 2018 — it will cover 67 percent of a worker's average pay for up to 12 weeks. (The total amount will be capped at two-thirds of the state's average weekly wage.) The paid leave extends to full- and part-time employees, both men and women, with no exemptions for small businesses. Compared with the FMLA, it cuts employees' qualifying tenure by half — to six months. As with health insurance, the funding will come from a small deduction out of every employee paycheck. At least 15 other states and Washington, D.C., are also considering enacting laws.

What about the private sector?
The private sector also has filled in the gaps in places. Tech companies in particular have become known for offering extensive family-friendly benefits — a strategy aimed at attracting the best and most diverse talent. At Facebook, all new parents get four months of paid leave plus a $4,000 cash stipend for each child born or adopted. Etsy offers new parents half a year of fully paid parental leave. Netflix allows unlimited leave for one year at full salary to new parents who work for its streaming service (employees are allowed to return part-time or full-time, or to return and then leave again as needed, during that year).

While the support at companies like these dazzles, at the end of the day their employees account for a small fraction of workers nationwide. And the states where paid leave is in effect amount to only a modicum of coverage when considered in the context of the entire country. The U.S. Department of Labor says only 12 percent of workers have access to paid family leave. (Unpaid family leave is available to 87 percent of workers.)

What's the argument against expanding paid family leave?
Opponents say it would be an unnecessary expansion of government — one that takes "more money from hardworking taxpayers to create some new federal entitlement," as House Speaker Paul Ryan has suggested. They also say it puts undue burden on businesses, not all of which are equally equipped to cover the costs of a paid family leave program. For example, in addition to paying for the employee who's out on leave, a company may have to hire a temp or pay overtime to another employee to handle the extra work.

What's next?
Thanks to pioneering companies and renewed attention from both sides of the political aisle, many advocates are feeling optimistic that the time has come for national change. For two congressional terms running, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have introduced legislation known as the FAMILY Act; it would grant qualified workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for new babies or sick family members at 66 percent of their salary (up to a capped amount). Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both made improving family leave one of the central tenets of their campaign platforms, and Marco Rubio suggested giving businesses tax credits for offering leave. Donald Trump has been cryptic on the issue (though we know Ivanka is in favor).

Stay tuned!


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