Paid Family Leave Advocates and Administrators Gather to Share Best Practices and Chart the Future of a Lifesaving Policy

June 26, 2024, Washington, D.C.–More than 100 state administrators and advocates gathered for a two-day conference this week to share best practices for implementing successful paid family and medical leave programs at the state level. Absent a national paid leave program, 13 states and the District of Columbia have passed their own paid family and medical leave laws that allow workers to take paid time off to bond with a new child, care for a sick family member, or attend to their own medical needs. 

The conference was convened by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and Family Values @ Work (FV@W), organizations that have been at the forefront of the paid leave movement for over two decades. The event drew advocates and administrators from 18 states and D.C., many of whom had firsthand experience in campaigns to establish paid leave programs in their states.  

“Paid family and medical leave is a critical program that recognizes our full humanity and the need we all have to care for ourselves and our loved ones,” said Emily Andrews, Director of Education, Labor, and Worker Justice at CLASP. “Paid leave allows us to take time off work and be present during life’s most important moments.” 

Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a long-time paid leave champion and House author of the FAMILY Act, which would establish a national paid leave program, delivered a keynote in which she reflected on her own experience as a young Congressional staffer. After receiving a devastating cancer diagnosis, Rep. DeLauro was able to recover while retaining her job and still getting paid thanks to paid leave offered by her employer. 

“Our health care system works best for those already well off enough to take advantage of it,” Rep. DeLauro said. “A simple illness or injury means their life can spin out of control. This is where paid leave is critical. I don’t know where I would be in my life or career had it not been for the leave Senator Chris Dodd provided to me when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Paid leave is essential–and we must expand it to all Americans.”

Since California passed the first-ever state paid family leave law in 2002, momentum has grown in other states to provide paid leave benefits to over 64 million workers, including millions of low-wage workers and those in nontraditional jobs. Only 27 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through their employers, and 41 percent have access to personal medical leave through employer-provided short-term disability insurance.   

Organizers noted that state paid leave programs have continuously evolved over the decades, from offering more weeks of leave to providing higher wage replacement rates to upgrading technology to process and pay out paid leave claims. States have also expanded the types of leave covered, including “safe leave” or time off for survivors of domestic violence to focus on their own or a loved one’s safety and recovery.  

“Implementation gives us insights to what is and isn’t working, what can be changed and improved,” said Josephine Kalipeni, Executive Director of FV@W. “It also gives us an opportunity to iterate and revolutionize paid leave for all workers.” 

Attendees shared lessons on what it takes to build and administer paid family and medical leave through social insurance systems that collect premiums from employers, workers, or both to pay replacement wages while workers are out on leave. Administrators of both new and established programs described outreach efforts to vulnerable workers and communities who may be unaware they are entitled to paid leave benefits and strategies to ensure these workers can access them. And advocates discussed their work building coalitions across constituent groups, including employers who warmed up to paid leaves policies once they became state law. 

The Pennsylvania legislature is considering its own paid leave bill, and advocate Samuel Jones expressed optimism about its chance of passage. Pennsylvania would be the first “purple state” to pass a statewide paid leave policy, noted Jones, Deputy Director for Strategic Partnerships at ROC United, a worker advocacy group. “Pennsylvania can be a blueprint for other states to take seriously the idea that they can pass paid family medical leave,” Jones said. “Workers should not have to choose between their jobs and taking leave for caregiving or medical needs. Paid family leave allows people to live and work with dignity and financial security, and every worker in America deserves it.”