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Twenty-five years ago today, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was signed into law. At the time, the FMLA represented an important legislative victory for America’s workers, granting eligible workers up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid time off to care for a new child, an ill family member, or their own serious illness. But 25 years later, many workers still lack the protections they need to balance the competing demands of work and family. Most importantly, the FMLA only ensures access to unpaid leave, so low-wage workers may lack the resources necessary to take advantage of the benefit.
Last year, the AEI-Brookings Paid Family Leave Working Group came out with a compromise federal paid parental leave proposal. Recognizing the changing demographics of working families and the important economic and health benefits that such a policy could provide for parents, children, and the nation, we proposed that new mothers and fathers receive up to eight weeks of job-protected leave, with a wage-replacement rate of 70% up to a cap of $600 per week. The proposal would be financed in part by a payroll tax on employees and in part through other budgetary savings.
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At the time of our working group proposal’s release, we acknowledged the importance of taking time off from work to care for family members or to tend to one’s own serious illness, but we felt we lacked the research and analysis necessary to propose a federal policy to provide paid leave for these purposes. This year, our working group has devoted itself to understanding the costs and benefits associated with providing paid time off for these other types of leave. Our members are reviewing the evidence on the health benefits of caregiving and medical leave, exploring the possible costs to businesses of such leave, modelling the costs of different policy provisions, and considering the insights from existing paid family care and medical leave policies at the state level and in other countries.
Considerations about designing a family and medical leave program must take into account the existing patchwork of policies that provide some kind of paid leave for one’s own medical illness, as well as the ability to take some days off for caregiving. While our earlier report showed limited access to paid parental leave in the US, the situation with paid medical leave, in particular, is more complicated.
Access to parental leave is mainly provided in the US through the unpaid FMLA and a few state and employer policies. In 2017, 15% of workers had access to a defined paid family leave policy (including parental leave and family care leave). But for paid medical leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 39% of workers had access through short-term disability insurance (including employer-provided disability insurance and the five state temporary disability insurance systems), 34% had access to long-term disability insurance through their employer, and 72% had access to paid sick leave.* However, the access to these types of paid leave is far from universal, and low-wage workers, part-time workers and workers at small firms have the least access to any paid leave, as shown below.
This summer, we will present a final report that summarizes the findings from our second year of working on this topic and our recommendations. In the meantime, our blog series will highlight specific ideas, perspectives, and insights about paid family care and medical leave presented by different members of our working group.
Over the next few months, we invite you to engage with us as we present and grapple with the evidence on paid leave and contemplate elements of a more inclusive paid leave policy.
Aparna Mathur is a resident scholar in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Isabel V. Sawhill is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. She co-directs the AEI-Brookings Working Group on Paid Family Leave.
*The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines each type of paid leave as follows. Paid family leave is is granted to an employee to care for a family member and includes paid maternity and paternity leave. The leave may be available to care for a newborn child, an adopted child, a sick child, or a sick adult relative. Paid family leave is given in addition to any sick leave, vacation, personal leave, or short-term disability leave that is available to the employee. Short-term disability insurance plans provide benefits for non-work-related illnesses or accidents on a per-disability basis, typically for a 6-month to 12-month period. Benefits are paid as a percentage of employee earnings or as a flat dollar amount. Short-term disability benefits vary with the amount of predisability earnings, length of service with the establishment, or length of disability. Plans can be private noncommercially insured, private commercially insured, or state temporary disability plans. Long-term disability insurance plans provide a monthly benefit to eligible employees who, because of a non-work-related illness or injury, are unable to work for an extended length of time. Benefits usually are paid as a fixed percentage of predisability earnings, up to a set limit. Most participants have a waiting period of 3 to 6 months, or until sick leave or short-term disability benefits end, before long-term disability benefits begin. Long-term disability benefits generally continue until retirement or a specified age, or for a period that varies with the employee’s age at the time of the disability. This category does not include Social Security Disability Insurance. Paid sick leave is paid absence from work if an employee is unable to work because of a non-work-related illness or injury. The employer usually provides all or part of an employee’s earnings. Employees commonly receive their regular pay for a specified number of days off per year. Sick leave is provided on a per-year basis, usually expressed in days, and is never insured.
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