Spotlight Exclusives

The Momentum is Here and Paid Family Leave is Coming

Adrienne Schweer, Bipartisan Policy Center Adrienne Schweer, Bipartisan Policy Center, posted on

It takes over two years for the average American teacher to save enough vacation and sick leave to cover just six weeks of paid time off following the birth of a child. And that assumes the teacher did not catch any of the illnesses that ravage her classroom nor require a day of vacation to attend a family member’s weekend wedding or the funeral of a friend.

The challenge of finding paid leave is real, and not just for teachers. Only 15% of Americans have a paid family leave benefit, which is defined as paid time off for maternity, paternity, caring for an ailing or sick family member, or caring for themselves through serious illness or a major injury.

It is a silent struggle that has existed for generations, but increased public pressure is slowly starting to end that silence and bring the need for paid family leave to the forefront.

Over twenty-five years ago, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act to provide unpaid leave for workers (essentially job protection should you need to be out for up to 12 weeks’ time). But since that time, the changing economy, gender dynamics, and the structure of the family unit are making it increasingly challenging for many families to care for their loved ones while maintaining financial security.  This is elevating a national conversation about the need for a federal paid family leave policy.

The American economy and workforce have changed dramatically. More women are working than ever before, and they’re trying to balance life and family. To put this in perspective, the number of working mothers with children has increased significantly since 1975, with about 47% of mothers working then and about 71% working today. Additionally, 40% of mothers are the primary household breadwinner, up from 11% in 1960.

This challenge is especially pronounced for low-wage and hourly employees, who in most areas of the country are not eligible for employer-paid leave policies, even if their salaried counterparts are.

Large employers in the private sector understand paid family leave’s impact on early childhood development. Increasingly, they have taken the lead on strengthening benefits packages to include paid leave for mothers, fathers, and caregivers. But these policies are rare and exist mostly for high-skilled and well-paid employees. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, only 4% of workers in the lowest 10% of weekly wages can access paid leave. By contrast, among workers in the highest 10% of weekly wages, a far higher fraction – 23% – are covered by such policies.

Thankfully, there is increasing interest in extending these benefits to lower-wage and hourly employees. In 2018, companies like Walmart, Starbucks, Dollar General, and CVS Health began offering paid family leave to hourly employees and some even expanded the policies to new fathers.

While companies are expanding access, real progress is happening at the state level. In the last ten years, California, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Washington State, and Massachusetts have enacted paid family leave legislation. Additionally, at least 21 states had some type of paid family leave proposal under consideration in their state legislative session.

Thanks to corporate intervention and state laws expanding paid family leave, federal lawmakers are starting to catch on and generate an exciting amount of momentum for a national policy. But bipartisan policymaking in Washington on paid family leave is still far from reality.

This year, we here at the Bipartisan Policy Center launched the new Task Force on Paid Family Leave to forge a pathway for an effective national paid family leave policy. Leaders of this task force are former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), 24th Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration Maria Contreras-Sweet (D-Obama Administration), and former U.S. Representative Mary Bono (R-CA). Proposals coming from both sides of the aisle are currently on the table, but the Task Force members believe there is an opportunity now to identify the best bipartisan solution for developing – and paying for – a national paid family leave policy for all Americans.

To make a federal paid family leave policy reality, we need a pragmatic and bipartisan framework that takes into account Americans from all walks of life. We need Americans to end the silent struggle and start sharing how unpaid leave is hindering the ability to ensure their child has a healthy start to life, provide for sick and ailing family members, or return to the workforce after a health issue. Our federal leaders are on the brink of making transformative change, and they need to hear that a national paid family leave policy is critical and needed now.

Adrienne Schweer is a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, where she leads the task force on paid family leave.

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