The Case for Paid Family Leave

February 10, 2016

Rynn Reed

This week D.C. will hold another hearing on a proposal for Paid Family Leave, in line with states like New Jersey, California and Rhode Island that have implemented paid family leave programs over the last decade. In this election cycle, a major point of political discourse among Democrats has been that America is still one of the only developed countries that has not established a paid leave program to provide income for workers during family or medical leaves. However, the case for federal paid leave has been gaining momentum for the several years; that would fix many problems with the current system of unpaid leave that keep workers from taking care of family members, bonding with a new child, or taking care of serious medical illnesses.

The current federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has left many workers with unmet needs. For low-paid workers, this exacerbates their unequal economic status and hurts their ability to avoid debt or stay employed when family medical emergencies come up. According to a study by Eileen Appelbaum and Helene Jorgensen 49.4 percent of private-sector employees who needed leave but did not take it reported not being able to afford unpaid leave as their main reason for not taking time off. Another troubling survey response was that 21 percent of those surveyed who were FMLA-eligible to take family leave cited being fired as their main reason for not taking leave, even though the FMLA gives these employees job protection. Even those employees who receive pay are sometimes discouraged because the pay is less than what they will need to cover costs. According to the survey, 37.9 percent of eligible employees did not receive any compensation while on leave.

These findings are critically important for pushing paid leave legislation in more states and would benefit the most vulnerable workers, including low-wage workers, women, employees with medical conditions and those with family members who have medical conditions. In a post in December of last year, CEPR showed that paid leave benefits low-wage workers who, unlike high-income workers, are less likely to already have paid leave. Low-wage workers, besides not having the money to afford unpaid leave, are also at higher risk for punishment by their employers either by having their hours cut or by getting fired. The DC proposal for paid family and medical leave addresses this issue and makes sure that employees can’t be punished for taking needed time off.

This bill in particular comes at a crucial time for those living in DC. According to a recent press release, “Marketwatch named DC the most expensive place in America to raise a family, based on data from the Economic Policy Institute, which estimated a family of four needs $106,493 to meet their basic needs.”

With the cost of living this high it’s no surprise that there has been a poll showing that 80 percent of D.C. residents are in favor of paid leave. The bill will have a third hearing on February 11th. CEPR’s Eileen Appelbaum submitted testimony on paid family leave for the second hearing.

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