State Sen. Erika Geiss knew from personal experience what her proposed legislation could do for her constituents when she introduced a bill last summer that would provide Michiganders with paid family leave. Geiss, a Democrat, said there were times she had to unexpectedly miss votes to care for her child who has a rare form of juvenile cancer.
“When you have to take a week to be at IV chemo, that’s something you definitely don’t plan to happen,” Geiss said. “You need to be able to have that time. I did not get fired, but there are people who might not have been able to do the same.”
The proposed bill, which was referred to a legislative committee, would serve as a state-level replacement for the now 30-year-old federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — the nation’s first and only law designed to help Americans, particularly women who bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities, balance the demands of work and family.
“People like to frame leave policies as being just about birth and welcoming a new child into the family, but there’s also those trying to leave domestic violence situations or victims of community violence, those who need to heal,” Geiss said. “People have to take time from work to be able to address those needs. And then we add to that trauma by putting someone’s livelihood in peril.”
Geiss said the FMLA might have worked 30 years ago but insisted that the state of work today and the state of our society and our communities need something better. The United States is the only high-income country where workers are not guaranteed a single paid day off by federal law, including for parental leave, family caregiving responsibilities or any other medical purposes.
The 19th talked to policy experts, advocates and state legislators about why the United States has lagged other high-income countries when it comes to paid leave policies, who these policies typically help and whether there is momentum in state legislatures to enact more.
What can fall under paid leave policies?
Paid leave policies can cover a wide range of life circumstances: Medical leave covers a worker’s own health condition; parental leave covers bonding with a new child; caregiving leave covers caring for a loved one with a serious health condition; military leave covers needs connected to a loved one’s current or impending active-duty military service; and safe leave covers when a worker is a victim of sexual or domestic violence and is seeking a restraining order or relocating to safety.
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What does the paid leave landscape look like on both the federal and state level?
The Family Medical Leave Act requires eligible employers to provide certain workers unpaid leave; however, there is no federal law currently providing a right to paid leave of any kind despite strong public support.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 27 percent of workers in the private sector and 28 percent of state and local government workers had access to paid family leave benefits as of March 2023.
Jessie Ulibarri, a former Colorado state senator and the co-executive director of State Innovation Exchange, which provides training for state legislators, said states are key in paving the way for a federal policy.
“If we look at any federal policy that has been big and bold in its implementation, it’s because it’s been piloted and worked out in the states,” Ulibarri said, pointing to changes like the increase in minimum wage and efforts to protect voting rights.
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Currently, 13 states and the District of Columbia have passed some form of guaranteed paid family and medical leave legislation for eligible workers, according to the Department of Labor. Per the Center for American Progress, eligibility is determined by earnings, duration of employment or both. These states are: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington. Benefits aren’t set to start in Maryland until 2025 and in 2026 for Delaware, Maine and Minnesota. The programs are funded through employee-paid payroll taxes, and some are also partly funded by employer-paid payroll taxes.
Additionally, New Hampshire, Vermont and Virginia have voluntary programs that allow some workers and employers to purchase private leave insurance.
“States have to continue to lead on this effort to show a critical demand across all states and political backgrounds,” Ulibarri said. “And that’s possible. We’ve seen that in states that have already taken the leadership on paid family medical leave. Their workers and their economies have benefited.”
Can we expect a wave of paid leave policies across more states this year?
Most likely. California was the first state to enact a paid leave policy in 2002. Six years later, New Jersey followed. Three years after that, New York followed. Then between 2017 and 2023, eight more states and D.C. in quick succession passed their own policies, according to 2023 data from the National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit that works to make life better for women and families.
Jocelyn Frye, the president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, said public support for paid leave has been consistent and strong. Frye anticipates more lawmakers will soon pass legislation to meet the demand.
“If you work post-pandemic, you know public support continues to be strong because people at a very personal level understand the need,” Frye said. “That is true across race, ethnicity and political affiliation.”
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States continue to learn from and build off one another, Frye said. For instance, the federal FMLA provided unpaid leave, but the definition of who was covered and whose care qualified for coverage was fairly narrow, typically only the employee, their spouse, their parents and their children. Some states have expanded the eligibility criteria to reflect the ways in which people have different family relationships or chosen family, which is particularly important for LGBTQ+ families who sometimes rely on non-familial relations to provide care.
“We continue to see states come online with comprehensive leave programs, though they are all different, creating a patchwork of policies,” Frye said. “But the reason that we continue to see that work at the state level is because people need access to leave and in the absence of a federal program, states have taken action.”
Historically, who has most benefited from these policies and who has been left out?
Patricia Cole, the senior director of federal policy at Zero to Three, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of infants and toddlers, said it’s important the country works toward a national, comprehensive policy so that the families that need paid leave the most can access it.
Low-income workers, who are disproportionately Black and Brown women, were less likely to have access: 39 percent of those in management, professional and related occupations have paid leave compared with 16 percent of those in service occupations, according to the 2023 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Cole said 2 in 5 babies, infants and toddlers live in families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. But when looking at Black, Hispanic and Native American infants and toddlers, the large majority live in families with low income. These families are more likely to need time off and less likely to afford it.
“It is truly mind boggling that these young families do not get support for the basics that they have to deal with in life,” Cole said. “Think about the family as not just a basic unit of the social fabric of the country, but it’s really also the economic fabric. Who else nurtures the next generation of workers and leaders?”
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Indivar Dutta-Gupta, the president and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, said much can be learned by looking at states like California that implemented paid family leave policies years ago.
“Paid leave policies can reduce gender inequity, racial inequity, economic inequity while increasing prosperity for everyone,” Dutta-Gupta said.
In California, more men started taking leave when a more generous wage replacement was offered. Employers were less likely to discriminate against women of childbearing age, undermining their outcomes in the labor market, Dutta-Gupta added.
Frye also added that paid leave is an anti-discrimination issue and can address the gender wage gap because it is about removing barriers that limit the ability of women to participate in the workforce.
“Without paid leave, women are denied opportunities because employers don’t want to hire women who they think are going to leave to care for kids or because they know they are expected to be caregivers.”
What are some factors that have traditionally limited the availability of paid leave?
The largest corporations tend to be the loudest opposition, arguing that paid leave policies will be too costly for business and threaten their profits. Yet, in states where paid leave policies have already been implemented, this has not been the case. In fact, research has shown a rise in employee morale, higher retention rates among employees and a cultural shift among millennials, in particular, who consider these benefits when choosing jobs.
Sapna Mehta, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, said there’s an unfounded fear that mandating paid leave would be an undue business regulation.
“I think this is really an employment protection for working people,” Mehta said, rather than an intended imposition on businesses.
There is also a cultural element to the pushback against paid leave. Cole said that the issue puts tension on two historically American-held values: the idea that it is not the government’s responsibility to ensure that families are able to raise their kids and that the government should not be too burdensome on businesses.
“I think it is essential that our country is trying to change its mindset,” Cole said. “Anecdotally, young potential parents are thinking twice about having children because they don’t have paid leave, because child care is a nightmare, because they may not be in jobs that afford them enough to raise a child. We need policies that help parents cope with all of that.”
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Frye said the push for a comprehensive paid leave policy will also require Americans continue shifting the way they view women’s role and participation in the economy.
“We continue to hold fast to stereotypes about who is supposed to provide care — an unspoken belief that there is a set of things that women should do that we should not compensate for or support as a policy matter,” Frye said. “Our economy is built on the backs of women.”
But our country continues to lag behind other countries when it comes to paid leave policies, Frye argued, because it is “unwilling to confront the reality” that women disproportionately provide caregiving and need more support to participate in the economy and provide adequate care for their families — all without losing income.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the income level of families for 2 in 5 infants and toddlers. Those families earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line.