Building on the Foundation of FMLA: How Paid and Medical Family Leave Would Help Children Nationwide

Child Care
Poverty & Family Economics

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), landmark legislation which guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave to employees without the fear of losing their employment.

While FMLA provides critical job protection for millions of workers in the U.S., only about 60 percent of the nation’s workforce is eligible for protection, and there are many more employees who cannot afford to take leave that is unpaid.

The lack of access to paid family and medical leave for millions of workers, particularly low-income workers, presents them with an impossible choice: stay at work, away from family members in need and no time to heal from childbirth, or lose that necessary income to care for and bond with their newborn or look after a sick family member.

This has serious implications for children’s healthy development and well-being. For example, mothers who are able to take leave are available to breastfeed, and parents can also more easily take newborns to the doctor for important check-ups and immunizations. Studies have also found that access to maternity leave substantially decreases infant mortality in certain populations, as well as results in higher birth weight and reduces the likelihood of premature birth. Families with children with special health care needs that accessed paid medical leave reported that this leave not only benefited the health of their children, but also their own emotional and financial outcomes.

Paid family and medical leave also promotes families’ financial security and thereby reducing child poverty. The birth of a child often results in large medical bills for families, and the income earned during paid leave can be used to cover these medical expenses and prevent a family from falling behind on other bills such as rent and utilities. According to the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, new mothers who take paid leave are over 50 percent more likely to receive a future pay increase. Mothers who do not take paid leave are 39 percent more likely to need public assistance to care for their family than those who take paid maternity leave.

It is important to note that there are also several reasons for ensuring that earned family leave is available to fathers as well as mothers, such as reduced child care costs, reduced gender wage gaps and positive impacts on child development.

While there are paid family and medical leave insurance programs that have been successfully administered in some states (including California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island), the U.S. still lacks a national paid leave program that would reach the millions of workers who lack access to paid leave or are currently ineligible for any leave.

The recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act included a two-year pilot program for a paid leave tax credit for businesses that offered paid leave to full-time employees who earn less than $72,000 a year.

Employers must pay a minimum of 50 percent of wages to workers, but would receive a larger tax credit (capped at 25 percent) if they offered higher wage replacement. While this is a step, this modest tax credit is unlikely to incentivize many businesses that are not already offering paid leave and therefore will result in mostly benefiting higher-income workers.

To ensure that all workers have access to family and medical leave, we need a truly universal program.

The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act of 2017 (H.R. 497/S. 337), led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-3), would create a program that combines employer and employee payroll contributions to create a shared fund for paid family and medical leave for all employers of all sizes. Workers in all companies would be eligible for up to 12 weeks of partial income for family and medical leave, including pregnancy, childbirth recovery, serious health condition of a child, parent, spouse or domestic partner, birth or adoption of a child and/or military caregiving and leave. Workers could earn 66 percent of their monthly wages, up to a capped amount.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, the FAMILY Act could reduce by 81 percent the number of the nation’s families facing economic insecurity when they need time to care.

Child poverty in the U.S. remains stubbornly high, and children in the U.S. continue to experience worse health outcomes than children in other industrialized nations. On this 25th anniversary of FMLA, it is now more critical than ever for all families to have access to paid leave. By making earned family and medical leave available to all workers, parents are given the flexibility needed to balance their obligations at home and at work, thereby promoting not only family financial security and child poverty reduction, but improved child health outcomes.

For additional information, be on the lookout for additional analysis and resources from First Focus Campaign for Children and our partners at the U.S. Child Poverty Action Group