FAMILY Act rides wave of momentum into Congress

By Liz Ben-Ishai

The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act rides into Congress on an impressive wave of federal, state, local, and corporate momentum. The bill, which would create a national social insurance program enabling workers to take up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave to welcome a new child, care for a seriously ill family member, or recover from their own illnesses, was reintroduced today in the wake of the following developments:

  • Growing bipartisan interest in paid leave. For the first time, presidential candidates from both major parties included paid family leave in their policy platforms, indicating a growing awareness among politicians of the importance of this issue to voters. Indeed, in a poll immediately preceding the election, 82 percent of voters (including a majority of Republican voters) said it was important for the next president and Congress to consider laws that would create a paid family and medical leave insurance program and enable people to earn paid sick days. Moreover, more than three-quarters of voters support a national paid family and medical leave law, including two-thirds (66 percent) of Republicans.
  • FMLA celebrates 24 years of job protected leave—and 24 years of waiting to do better. The reintroduction of the FAMILY Act coincides with the 24th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the federal law that guarantees about 60 percent of workers access to job-protected but unpaid leave. The FMLA has helped millions of workers know their jobs are safe while they take leave. However, most workers can’t afford to go entirely without their pay. Just 38 percent of working adults are both eligible for and can afford to take unpaid leave under FMLA. Just 14 percent of civilian U.S. workers have access to paid family leave, and less than 40 percent have paid medical leave through disability programs provided by their employers.
  • A growing number of states have established paid family leave programs. In 2016, New York and the District of Columbia passed laws to establish paid family programs, joining existing state programs in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. The FAMILY Act would build on the knowledge and experience gained through these programs, which are similarly structured as insurance systems.
  • More and more major corporations are announcing new and expanded paid leave programs. A growing number of large corporations are announcing increasingly generous paid leave programs for their own employees. Indeed, even smaller companies are stepping up to create their own programs. Some companies are taking the lead to make paid leave a priority in their industries, such as in the creative and tech industries. And, signaling their understanding of changing demographics and the importance of inclusive policies, businesses are increasingly offering paid leave for mothers or even for both parents, along with allowing its use for other critical caregiving obligations. For example, in 2016, at least 10 major companies, including Exelon, Nike, Cargill, and Deloitte, announced paid leave programs that cover care for seriously ill family members in addition to parental leave. In addition, more and more companies, including Hilton and Ikea, are extending paid leave policies to cover hourly workers, in addition to salaried employees. 
  • Local governments are increasingly offering paid leave to their public employees. More than 40 municipalities and counties have established paid leave programs, acknowledging the importance of this policy for attracting and retaining top talent.
  • Americans’ desire for economic security and quality jobs is greater than ever. Many commentators attribute the recent election outcome to Americans’ continuing sense of economic instability and insecurity. Although the recovery has helped many get back to work and regain their footing, even those who are working are often struggling to get by in low-quality jobs. Having access to the critical workers supports, such as paid leave, is a crucial step towards helping more Americans achieve economic security. No one should fall into poverty or experience serious hardship because they need to take time away from work to care for others or themselves. Yet far too often, this is what happens when workers become seriously ill or their family members require care.

Congress and the American people are divided on many issues—there’s no denying it. But a vast majority agrees with the wisdom of supporting working families to care for themselves and for one another. Americans value work—and paid family and medical leave helps people get back to work when they are ready to be productive and make important contributions to their employers and our economy. It’s time for Congress to pass the FAMILY Act – the universal, inclusive, and economical solution to our nation’s paid leave problem. Let’s not celebrate another FMLA anniversary without having a paid leave program in place.