For Worker and Family Health, Defend ACA and Fight for Paid Leave

By Liz Ben-Ishai

On the Family and Medical Leave Act’s (FMLA) 24th anniversary, we commemorate progress while recognizing workers and their families need for far more support. This includes access to health insurance as well as the paid leave that enables them to use it.

The FMLA is the federal law that guarantees some workers (about 60 percent) access to job-protected, unpaid leave to recover from illness, care for sick family, or bond with new children. These protections are important, but because leave is unpaid, many workers aren’t able to take it. Moreover, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Medicaid are currently under threat from the Administration and Congress, compounding workers’ lack of paid leave with potential loss of their health coverage.

When FMLA passed, advocates pushed Congress to quickly add wage replacement. Unfortunately, despite overwhelming public support for paid family and medical leave, Congress has been unable to pass paid leave legislation for almost 25 years. This failure to act has serious consequences for the nation’s health and wellbeing.

An updated CLASP brief, “Paid Leave Necessary for an Ounce of Prevention,” explains the importance of paid leave to preventive health care. Without pay, workers are forced to make decisions that undermine their health both now and long term. For example, nearly half of FMLA-eligible workers who needed leave but didn’t take it cited lack of affordability. Consequently, they delayed or forewent needed medical care.

Under the ACA, 20 million previously-uninsured people have gained health insurance. For many of them, access to care was previously out of reach. It is critical that we defend the ACA to protect access to doctors, treatment for illness, and preventive care that saves lives and dollars. At the same time, we also need to look ahead. Access to health care can be futile when workers lack the paid leave they need in order to use it without risking their economic security. Even in today’s climate, with the safety net in jeopardy, we must remain committed to forward motion on paid leave.

Notably, there is momentum at the state level. Last month, Washington joined California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, and Washington, D.C. in establishing a paid family and medical leave insurance program. Washington’s program offers generous benefits, including up to 18 weeks of leave for workers to care for themselves and their loved ones at times of serious illness or when a new child joins the family. As noted in CLASP’s brief, access to paid leave promotes adult caregivers’ mental health, increases breastfeeding rates, and boosts preventive care for infants and children. Washington families will reap these benefits as the program is implemented in the coming years.

The health of U.S. workers and their families is critical to our communities and economy. We can’t play politics with health insurance or reject workers’ need for paid family and medical leave. Fortunately, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act has been introduced in Congress. This equitable, inclusive, comprehensive bill is modelled on successful state programs and would benefit workers, businesses, public health, and the economy. On the anniversary of FMLA’s implementation, the need for action could not be clearer.