Alexandra L. Bradley, National Academy of Social Insurance
On February 5th, the country celebrated the 24th anniversary of a groundbreaking federal protection for the needs of workers and families: the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The legislation was designed to assist families with the often complicated task of balancing work and family responsibilities. Qualified workers are eligible to use up to 12 weeks of unpaid time away from their jobs each year to provide care for a new child through birth, adoption, or foster care; to care for an immediate family member experiencing an illness or other serious health condition; to address certain circumstances arising from the deployment of a spouse, parent, or child; and/or to care for their own serious medical needs. They are also eligible for up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave to care for wounded service members and veterans in their families. The law provides job protection to workers on FMLA leave, and ensures the continuation of existing employer-sponsored health benefits.
Over the past 24 years, the FMLA has been used more than 100 million times by workers to help manage the dual demands of the work and family. However, in many ways, the law falls short in protecting working Americans and their families. Due to stringent requirements in terms of the duration of an employee’s tenure and hours worked with their current employer, and also in terms of employer size and location relative to their employees, fewer than 60 percent of workers are actually eligible for coverage under the FMLA. Even for those who are covered, though, the financial burden of taking unpaid time away from work for family or medical care needs is simply unrealistic for many. Workers who can afford to take unpaid time off are more likely to be White, highly educated, and wealthier than those who cannot.
In contrast, paid leave is available in some capacity to workers in every other advanced economy. A few states have led the way in the United States by developing their own paid leave programs for workers. For the most part, however, access to paid leave in the U.S. is sparse. As of 2016, 14 percent of civilian employees had access to paid leave through their employer to care for a new child or seriously ill relative. Thirty-eight percent had employer-sponsored temporary disability insurance to care for a serious personal health issue, and 32 percent did not have access to even one paid sick day for their own illness. As with access to unpaid leave, access to any of the aforementioned benefits is even less available to low-wage workers.
Meanwhile, the need for protections to support working caregivers is growing. Demands on caregivers have increased over recent decades, and will continue to do so moving forward. At the same time, American families have been steadily moving away from having a primary stay-at-home caregiver as households have come to increasingly rely on earnings from all adults capable of working. There is no full-time, stay-at-home parent in 72 percent of American families, either because both partners or a single parent are working. In addition, the care needs of the senior population are rising as the Boomer generation ages. With fewer working-age adults to care for these aging seniors, the ratio of caregivers to care recipients is tightening.
With the growing caregiver squeeze and the disparities inherent in our current system of leave provisions for family and medical care, what is the path forward for the nation’s public policies supporting working families?
There are many options that federal and state leaders could pursue. Social insurance is the policy design chosen by the vast majority of countries and three U.S. states that currently provide paid leave (in addition to New York’s program, which will go into effect in 2018). In a social insurance approach, employees and/or their employers contribute a small share of earnings to support a system that protects all workers against the risk of needing to take time off to care for a family member or their own serious medical needs. If the United States were to pursue a national social insurance program to provide paid family and medical leave to the vast majority of working people in the United States – an idea that has gathered increasing attention inside Congress, in the advocacy and research communities, and in the private sector over the last few years – such a program could be administered by the Social Security Administration, which already has the technology, field offices, and skilled staff required to run a national program. Other proposals have included parental leave savings accounts, tax credits for employers, restricting Unemployment Insurance to cover family and medical leave, and compensatory time (“comp time’). Each of these approaches have their own benefits and drawbacks, as well as differing impacts on families from different socio-economic backgrounds, that are important to consider in the development of any policy moving forward. Any policy should be evaluated by the number of workers who would be covered, the reasons for which they could take leave, the adequacy of the benefit in terms of financial reimbursement and duration of leave, and whether the proposal protects against workplace retaliation for using the benefit.