Today, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, or FAMILY Act, federal legislation to create a “social insurance” system for paid medical and family leave. A new office within the Social Security Administration would administer the system, which would be funded by a payroll tax (two-tenths of one percent of workers’ wages, or $1.50 per week for the average worker). Eligible employees could receive 66% of their monthly wages, up to a capped amount, for up to 12 weeks while dealing with their own serious health conditions, bonding with a new birth or adopted child, or caring for a family member (including a domestic partner) with a serious health condition.
Right now, many workers with serious health conditions, or a child or parent who’s seriously ill, must face the difficult choice between going to work in order to keep their pay coming in, or staying home to recover or provide needed care to a family member. In a country that values work and values families, this shouldn’t be the case. The FAMILY Act would allow workers to take time off for their families’ health without losing their entire income for that time period.
On the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) back in February, health advocates noted that the law, while an important step, falls far short of providing the kind of support the US workforce needs. The FMLA allows eligible workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to deal with their own serious health condition or that of a loved one, or to care for a new child, without being fired for doing so. Because the leave is unpaid, though, many workers can’t afford to take it. It only applies employers with 50 or more employees, and to workers have been with their employers for at least a year and worked at least 1,250 hours for that employer over the past 12 months, which means new hires and many part-time workers are excluded. As a result, around 40% of US workers are ineligible for FMLA leave.
The FAMILY Act would address major gaps left by the FMLA. Family and medical leave would be paid, and it would be available to workers regardless of whether they work full-time or part-time, how long they’ve worked for their current employer, and how large their employer is. Anyone who pays into Social Security and is eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits would be able to receive partial salary replacement under the FAMILY Act.
Workers would be able to use leave to address their own serious health condition (as defined by the Department of Labor for FMLA purposes) or to care for a child, parent, spouse, or domestic partner with a serious health condition. The Act would also allow workers to take leave to care for an injured military family member or deal with exigencies arising from a servicemember’s deployment.
Today, the US is the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee workers any paid maternity leave. (Many, but not all, of these industrialized countries also offer paid leave to new fathers, and to parents of either sex who have adopted a child.) Studies have found associations between paid maternity leave and higher rates of well-baby visits, decreased infant mortality, longer periods of breastfeeding, and improved mental health of new mothers – all of which contribute to children’s health and development. Children recover from illnesses more quickly with a parent’s care. Medicare patients with family caregivers tend to have shorter hospital stays, and the availability of family caregivers can delay or prevent entry into nursing homes.
In short, paid medical and family leave is good for public health. That’s why the American Public Health Association has endorsed laws that expand access to paid medical and family leave, as well as the FAMILY Act specifically.
Paid family and medical leave are also good for the economy. Liz Ben-Ishai writes about the FAMILY Act at MomsRising.org:
This kind of program would make a huge difference in workers’ lives. Only 11 percent of private sector workers currently have paid family leave, and fewer than forty percent have access to disability insurance for personal medical leave. Under the FAMILY Act, a majority of workers could breathe a sigh of relief knowing that caring for a sick parent or child or welcoming a newborn wouldn’t push them into economic insecurity. Moreover, the program would boost the economy; when workers are secure in their jobs and able to handle life’s inevitable obstacles without fear of income or job loss, they’re more likely to put money back into the economy. That’s money they’ll spend in their communities to help sustain local and national businesses.
Conscientious employers care about their employees, but also have to mind the bottom line. The FAMILY Act makes business sense because employers’ financial contributions to the program are minimal, while the potential benefits for productivity and employee loyalty are great. Cynthia DiBartolo, CEO of Tigress Financial Partners, explains: “Companies can measurably improve their bottom line by transforming a company’s corporate culture into one of a truly caring organization—which basically means, putting the interests of their employees first!” According to DiBartolo, the FAMILY Act “will help businesses to do what’s good for employees and good for the bottom line.” That’s probably why, as polling from Small Business Majority shows, a plurality of small business owners from across the country support a family and medical leave insurance program like the one proposed under FAMILY.
The FAMILY Act builds on the success of state-level family leave insurance programs, like those in California and New Jersey. Rhode Island recently passed a family leave insurance law, as well, and will soon implement the program. The experiences of California and New Jersey further demonstrate the benefits of paid leave for workers, business owners, and the economy. In California, nine out of ten employers report either positive effects or no effect of paid family leave insurance on business operations. And 91 percent of workers in low-wage jobs who used paid leave say it helped them to better care for a new child.
The FAMILY Act can reduce inequality, improve public health, and bolster the US economy. It seems like something all the family-friendly members of Congress should be able to support.