Obama Leads on Paid Family Leave

I’m writing this post from a hospital bed. And I’m really lucky to be doing it.

Of course, I’m not thrilled about the complications of pregnancy that have confined me to bed rest for several weeks. But because of a job I can do remotely with a cell phone and laptop—and most importantly, a progressive employer committed to embodying its values—I can afford to take time to get the care I need now and receive time off with my baby when he’s born. Most Americans aren’t so fortunate.

That’s why President Obama’s announcement that he is directing federal agencies to provide employees with six weeks of paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child is much needed. His call for Congress to guarantee workers’ access to paid sick days and to start a fund that would help states establish paid family leave insurance programs is even more necessary.

The president’s actions highlight our country’s enormous deficiency when it comes to paid family leave. Virtually every other country already guarantees it. Out of 185 countries, the United States is one of just three—in the company of Oman and Papua New Guinea—that doesn’t guarantee at least some paid leave to new mothers. Many nations guarantee 14 weeks, 26 weeks, or more and guarantee leave to fathers as well.

Yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 13 percent of workers in the U.S. had access to paid family leave through their employers in 2014. Three states—California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—currently guarantee workers access to leave paid for through state insurance funds. And the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), passed in 1993, grants employees who work for larger employers the right to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for themselves, a new baby, or a family member with a serious illness. Since its passage, the FMLA has been used 100 million times by working people to take time off work during their period of greatest need, without having to worry about losing their jobs or their health insurance.

But the FMLA doesn’t protect everyone. And too many Americans, especially those living paycheck to paycheck, can’t afford to take unpaid time off. When a baby is born or we are diagnosed with cancer or another long-term illness, Americans need paid leave. All of us.

As Demos fellow Sharon Lerner pointed out on this blog last year, we already know that paid leave is good for families.

In California, where paid family and medical leave has been in effect for 10 years, the law has increased fathers’ involvement of the care of their babies. In Europe, where many countries provide upwards of six months of leave, increased paid leave has not just improved children’s health but also, according to a 2000 study in the Journal of Health Economics, saved lives.

Lerner’s recent research finds that establishing paid family leave in New Jersey had minimal effect on employers, certainly not sparking the mass layoffs, staggering business costs, or human resources chaos some opponents had predicted.

Yet despite the clear benefits and low costs of paid leave, I’m still part of a fortunate minority: Americans with the opportunity to take paid time off to recover from illness and bond with my newborn when he arrives.

It’s tremendously encouraging to see President Obama leading the effort to change that picture. And there’s more that he can do. In addition to the important step of guaranteeing paid leave for federal employees, the president can continue using his executive authority to raise standards for the private sector employees who work for federal contractors.

Demos has called on the president to sign a Good Jobs Executive Order that would promote federal purchasing standards with preferences for companies that offer key benefits like paid family leave and paid sick days. But it will take Congress to truly move us all forward. 

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