It’s About Time: The National Paid Leave Act Would Help the U.S. Catch Up with Most of the World

>>nicu_baby_secondary_pgBY SABINE SCHOENBACH     When I look at my healthy, whip-smart daughter these days, it seems like a lifetime ago that her small, newborn body was hooked up to constantly beeping heart and lung monitors in the brightly lit neonatal ICU. In reality, it was nine years ago. An infection during labor resulted in a series of medical emergencies that kept my daughter in the hospital – separated from me, her father, and her twin brother – for the first six weeks of her life.

What is clear to me now is that we were all immensely lucky. We were lucky to give birth in a university hospital that had a lung bypass machine down the hall from where I delivered. We were lucky to have excellent medical care and health insurance to pay for it. We were lucky to have family support and financial stability.

And we were lucky to have given birth in California in 2004, the year the country’s first family leave insurance program was implemented. The partial wage replacement that California’s Paid Family Leave provided (along with an employer who did not blink at providing additional unpaid leave) gave us the peace of mind to focus on our family when we were in crisis.

Every day families need time to care for their loved ones and to welcome children – healthy or not – into their lives. But whether or not families can afford to take that time can depend on many circumstances, including the state in which they live.

Currently, only three states (California, New Jersey, and, most recently, Rhode Island) provide their residents with family leave insurance programs. And here in North Carolina, working families have absolutely no guarantee of paid maternity/paternity leave, no guarantee of pay when taking time from work to take care of sick children or elderly parents, and they often lack job protection when taking leave.

Historic federal legislation being introduced this week could change this. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) are introducing the FAMILY Act – legislation that would create a national insurance program allowing workers to receive a portion of their pay when needing time for medical or family reasons.

The FAMILY Act would be a huge step forward for this country, which currently stands with Lesotho, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea as one of the only countries without paid maternity leave. But, it would be an especially important win for working women in North Carolina, which consistently falls at the bottom of the state rankings in workplace protections for caregiving.

The only policy that provides job-protected leave to some North Carolina families is the federal Family Medical Leave Act, which – due to eligibility requirements – leaves out 40 percent of the workforce. And it only guarantees unpaid leave, which thousands of families cannot afford.  

Some employers have stepped up to fill the gap, but only about one in 10 workers in the Southeast have access to paid family leave through their employers. Disturbingly, the data shows that those who need paid leave the most – low-income workers and women of color – are often the least likely to have access to paid leave.

This means that thousands of new parents and workers with caregiving responsibilities are forced to choose between what is best for their families and the income they need to cover basic expenses. A national family leave insurance program could shift that impossible choice.

But can the country afford it? The experience of similar programs in California and New Jersey shows that family leave insurance is relatively budget neutral. Women in states with paid leave programs are less likely to be on public assistance, and paid leave shortens expensive hospital stays while providing better health outcomes for all concerned.

And business owners in these states support paid leave because it is good for their bottom line. A recent study shows that New Jersey’s program has saved businesses money by improving employee retention, decreasing turnover costs, and improving productivity.

My family will be celebrating our children’s ninth birthday next week. I’m hoping that some day soon we’ll all be celebrating nationwide paid leave and additional work-family policies that support strong families, strong communities, and a strong economy.

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