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Federal Paid Leave Policy Could Grant Millions of Americans Access to Family and Medical Leave

Each year, more than 2.5 million working Americans are unable to take time off to care for a family member with a serious health condition.

Washington, D.C.- The United States remains the only high-income country that does not mandate paid family and medical leave. Each year, more than 2.5 million working Americans are unable to take time off to care for a family member with a serious health condition or who was injured during military service, for pregnancy, to bond with a new child, or for their own illness or disability. Anew report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research demonstrates that a federal paid leave program could effectively close this gap.

The report, “Documenting the Need for a National Paid Family and Medical Leave Program,” by Helene Jorgenson and Eileen Appelbaum, analyzes the Department of Labor’s 2012 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Survey and documents the unmet need leaves of private-sector workers in the United States.

As the authors note, only firms with 50 or more workers are required to provide leave under the FMLA. Other requirements include that an employee must have been with the same employer for one year or more and worked at least 1,250 hours in the past year to be eligible.

“While the FMLA does allow eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave, the law only applies to 55.9 percent of private sector workers due to eligibility requirements,” said Helene Jorgensen, a senior research associate at CEPR and an author of the report. “Just as importantly, this leave is unpaid. The prospect of losing income during a leave acts as the most commonly cited disincentive to taking time off for family or medical reasons for many workers.”

The authors’ analysis shows that 49 percent of private-sector employees who needed a leave but did not take one reported they could not afford to take unpaid leave as the main reason for not taking family and medical leave. Slightly more than 18 percent reported they did not take leave because of concerns that they would not be able to return to their jobs.

Jorgenson and Appelbaum call attention to the fact that federal legislation – the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act – was introduced in Congress in 2013 to establish a nation-wide paid leave program. At the state-level, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have enacted paid leave programs to increase access to affordable family leave for all employees. The California experience in particular demonstrates that businesses experience little or no negative effects from such legislation, and in fact generates cost savings in many cases. The analysis suggests that by providing partial wage replacement to employees through a family and medical leave insurance program, the FAMILY Act would allow between 1.9 and 2.5 million private-sector employees to take much needed time to care for themselves and their families.

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