On FMLA’s 29th Anniversary, We Must Pass Paid Leave for All

By Sapna Mehta 

As the Omicron surge continues, 2022 feels a lot like the bleak days of 2020. Hospitals are once again overflowing and understaffed. Outbreaks are forcing child care and school interruptions. And frontline workers are again forced to make the impossible choice between working while sick and exposing others to the virus, or losing their jobs and paychecks. Nearly two years into a devastating global pandemic, millions of working people still aren’t guaranteed a single paid sick day or any paid family leave.

This week marks the 29th anniversary of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides unpaid leave to millions of workers for family caregiving or medical leave. While passage of the FMLA was a groundbreaking achievement for its time, coverage and eligibility restrictions mean that about 40 percent of the workforce are excluded from its protections.  During today’s ongoing crisis, Congress must step in to support workers left behind. The best action would be to create a federal paid family and medical leave program and to reinstate and strengthen the emergency paid sick leave requirements passed in 2020. 

Since the FMLA only guarantees unpaid leave, it’s inaccessible to millions of workers earning low wages—people who can’t afford to lose their paychecks for any period of time. But only 23 percent of private sector workers have paid family leave through their jobs, leaving more than 88 million workers without paid leave to care for a new child, aging parent, or sick family member.

When child care centers and schools once again close their doors as staff and children test positive for COVID, working parents struggle to balance caregiving and work. This challenge has contributed to the exodus of 3 million women from the labor force since 2020. A national paid ​​family and medical leave program would help boost women’s labor force participation, which has declined to levels not seen since the 1980s.

For the millions of workers without paid sick leave, following the CDC guidelines to isolate, quarantine, or recover from COVID or care for a family member could lead to financial ruin. Only 33 percent of the frontline workers earning the lowest wages—those who clean hotels, stock groceries, care for the elderly, and prepare and serve food—have paid sick leave. But the cost of an unpaid sick day can be disastrous. The lost wages from three unpaid sick days could cost the average worker their entire grocery budget for a month.

Recognizing the dire situation facing the country early in the pandemic, Congress acted expeditiously to pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in March 2020 and created a federal emergency paid sick and paid leave program. Lawmakers recognized that to combat a deadly virus, working people would need paid sick leave and paid family leave to care for themselves and their families.

FFCRA required certain employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide workers with: 1) two weeks of paid sick days to isolate, quarantine and recover from the virus; and 2) expanded paid family leave to care for children as the virus shuttered schools and child care centers. Employers could be fully reimbursed for the cost of providing leave through tax credits. The requirements were in place from April 1-December 31, 2020.

While the FFCRA provisions only covered 47 percent of private-sector workers, this benefit was effective in combating COVID-19. Over 2 million frontline workers who are employed in large grocery store chains were left unprotected, but the policy was so powerful that it helped reduce the spread of COVID by 400 or more cases per state per day.

In February 2021, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, expanding the tax credits to employers from January through September 2021. Employers with fewer than 500 workers could still receive tax credits to cover the cost of leave if they voluntarily offered it to employees for COVID-19 specific reasons. But lawmakers failed to renew paid leave requirements. Preliminary analysis found the tax breaks alone were ineffective in extending paid leave to workers in need. Without the mandate, employers were reluctant to provide paid leave, even though they would be reimbursed.

Today, companies are again showing their unwillingness to voluntarily provide this critical benefit. While some employers did so earlier in the pandemic, many are now rolling them back in the middle of the Omicron surge, just when workers need them. Such corporations include Walmart and Amazon, the country’s largest private employers, whose profits soared during the pandemic, as well as CVS and Walgreens, which have also seen strong profits.

Without the emergency paid leave requirements, workers and families have even less protection now than they did in earlier stages of the pandemic. Last month, nearly 9 million people reported they could not work because they either had COVID or were caring for someone who did, more than at any other stage of the pandemic. While voters across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support paid leave, backing has stalled in Congress.

Policymakers must once again prioritize the collective health and safety of workers and their families to combat this pandemic and the caregiving crisis it’s exacerbated. Congress should reinstate emergency paid sick leave requirements and expand its reach to cover all employers and workplaces. Lawmakers must also create a federal paid family and medical program to address the nation’s caregiving crisis. We must build the necessary infrastructure to survive the current pandemic and weather future shocks.