Tech Companies Are Leading the Way on Paid Family Leave, and the Rest of the Country Should Catch Up

By Julie Kashen

This article first appeared on The Century Foundation’s website.

A new survey from the Pew Research Center finds that the majority of working parents (56 percent) say it is difficult for them to balance their job responsibilities with their family responsibilities.1 More working mothers find it difficult (60 percent) than working fathers (52 percent), but a majority of both admit the severe challenge of being a working parent. While distressing, this should not be surprising, considering the lack of family-forward leave policies in the United States.

Figure 1

The United States is one of three nations in the world that does not offer any paid maternity leave, and the only OECD nation without one — one of nine OECD nations without paid paternity leave and one of two without paid sick leave.2 As a result, only 13 percent of people working in the United States have access to paid family leave through their employer.3 This means that many parents in dual-earner households are faced with a painful choice: either one parent must quit working and stay home to care for their new child, or together they must forgo a huge slice of family income to pay for daily child care. For single parents, the challenge is even more significant.

For a nation that is committed to family values and putting children and families first, this is simply wrong, for multiple reasons. If parents continue working, it undermines parental bonding with new babies and newly adopted children. It is harmful to child development and child and maternal health. If one parent decides to quit work in order to stay home, it has a major impact on gender equality (because it is usually a mother who takes on that role). Furthermore, because this hole in our workplace policy often results in terminated careers and reductions in earnings precisely when new families need income the most, it has serious consequences for families, businesses, and the national economy.

There is some good news, however. In recent years, more and more private companies have recognized and acted on the need for family-forward policies, particularly paid parental leave. From Virgin to Nestle to Goldman Sachs, companies throughout the United States are recognizing that paid parental leave is not just the right thing to do — it is good for their employees, and, perhaps more motivating, good for their bottom lines.

Nowhere has the advance of paid family leave been more apparent than in the technology sector. For example, as recently as November 2, Amazon, which has been criticized for its challenging workplace culture, announced an expansion in their paid leave policy to include fathers for the first time and to provide more time for caregiving and recovery for mothers.4 Amazon is just part of a larger trend of technology companies that have been at the forefront of these efforts, using their family-forward policies to compete for and retain talent, and yield significant profits.

Paid leave policies have made great progress, but still have a long way to go. The more family-forward paid leave policies being adopted by the technology sector deserve celebration, and should serve as inspiration for other employers and help propel the national conversation about paid family leave. This brief describes the current policy landscape around paid leave; examines the many ways in which paid leave benefits families, businesses, and the economy; and catalogues the major advances the technology sector has taken in offering family-friendly policies. The bottom line, however, is that government has a crucial role to play in valuing and investing in families and communities by establishing a national paid leave standard.

THE CURRENT STATE OF U.S. PAID FAMILY LEAVE POLICY

Twenty-two years ago, President Bill Clinton — at his very first bill signing ceremony — signed into law a major piece of family leave legislation. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) was a big win for family-forward work policy, as it includes three significant advances for people working in the United States.

First, FMLA guarantees twelve weeks of job-protected leave. This means an individual can take time off and feel secure knowing her or his job — or a substantially similar one — will be there when she or he returns. Health insurance coverage also continues throughout this leave.

Second, FMLA goes beyond maternity leave to also include paternity leave, or parental leave. This gender neutrality is important because, even though women are often primary caregivers, men are starting to take on greater caregiving roles. Having men play a greater role in caregiving not only is important for greater gender equality, but also benefits men and their family members.

Third, FMLA also includes medical leave for serious illnesses — not only to treat and address an individual’s health issues, but also that for a close family member in need. This means everyone has a stake in the policy, since serious illnesses can impact men and women and their close family members. In fact, since FMLA became law, serious illnesses have become the number one reason for taking leave. A Department of Labor report released on the twentieth anniversary of the FMLA found that 55 percent of leaves are taken for one’s own illness, while 21 percent of leaves taken are for pregnancy or a new child and another 18 percent for the illness of a qualifying family member.5

Unfortunately, like most legislation that undergoes the sausage-making process of compromise in the U.S. Congress, FMLA had several major omissions when signed into law, the most glaring of which was that, while the act provides a guarantee of job protection, there is no accompanying promise of pay. Companies can choose to provide pay, or employees could be forced to use paid vacation and sick time to make up the difference. While many employees do receive some pay through their employers during leave, according to the Department of Labor, the majority of those who go on leave take only ten days’ worth, and 40 percent say that they had to return to work because they could not afford to take a longer leave. Of those who do not take leave at all, despite needing it, 46 percent say it is because they cannot afford it.6

In addition, FMLA’s coverage is far from universal. A whopping 40 percent of the workforce is left uncovered by FMLA because the act applies only to companies with fifty or more employees and employees who have worked for the same employer full time for the past year.7 Also, while FMLA covers employees who need to take time to care for a mother, father, spouse or child, it does not apply if the relative is an in-law, sibling, or of other close affinity.

STATES AND CITIES TAKE STEPS FORWARD

California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have all enacted state paid family leave laws. As three of the five states that have laws establishing Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) — which provides income replacement during short periods of leave — all three states used TDI as the basis for the insurance program supporting paid family leave. The family leave plans in California and New Jersey provide six weeks of partial income replacement through their insurance programs; Rhode Island provides four weeks of partial income replacement.8 Studies find that these policies work well for families and employers alike.9

Other states have started moving forward on paid leave as well. In 2007, Washington State passed paid family leave legislation, but implementation has been delayed. In addition, in 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded $1.55 million in competitive grants to help states, municipalities, and federally recognized tribes to conduct feasibility studies for paid leave programs (and evaluate existing programs). California, Montgomery County (Maryland), New Hampshire, New York City, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and Washington State have all received these grants.10 This investment comes on top of $500,000 in grants that the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau awarded in 2014 to Massachusetts, Montana, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C.11 Other municipalities have acted on paid leave as well, such as Cincinnati, Ohio, which has instituted six weeks of paid family leave for city employees.12

These state and local programs are not only making progress for families in those regions, but also are helping to build momentum for federal paid family and medical leave legislation. In 2013, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro first introduced the FAMILY Act — a national paid family and medical leave program to provide individuals with twelve weeks of partial income when they take time off for FMLA purposes. The bill seeks to ensure that no one need risk losing a much-needed paycheck by taking time to care for family. More importantly, it would establish a minimum standard for individuals working in every industry and in businesses of every size. Congressional support for this legislation has been growing.

…continue reading the remainder of the story on The Century Foundation’s website.


Julie Kashen is a fellow at The Century Foundation where she researches and writes on families, economic mobility, labor, and poverty.

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