By Fish Stark, First Focus Intern Associate

First Focus was proud to support a congressional briefing on paid family and medical leave today, hosted by the National Work and Family Coalition. The event, moderated by Wendy Chun-Hoon of the Family Values @ Work Consortium, featured several strong advocates for the expansion of paid family and medical leave: Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology at CUNY Graduate Center, Permelia Toney-Boss, a New Jersey worker impacted by the need for paid leave, and State Senator Gayle Goldin of Rhode Island, sponsor of the state’s Temporary Care Insurance bill.

At some point in their lives, nearly everyone needs time away from work to care for a new child, a sick parent or partner, or to recover from a serious illness themselves. Often, however, those workers are forced to choose between what is best for themselves and their families and their own economic and job security. Only 11 percent of the US workforce receives paid family leave through their employers, and less than 40 percent have personal medical leave through an employer-provided temporary disability program. While many have the option to take unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), losing 12 weeks’ worth of wages is simply not a viable option for many low- or middle-income workers with new babies, sick spouses, or personal medical complications. While FMLA has offered critical job protection for workers on leave over the last 20 years, it only covers about 60% of the nation’s workforce.

Expanding family and medical leave is critical not just to families experiencing illness, but especially to families with newborns and young children. Evidence has shown that paid leave programs have significant health benefits for infants: newborns whose mothers take leave of at least 12 weeks are more likely to be breastfed, receive medical checkups and get critical immunizations, and it is estimated that an additional 10 weeks of paid leave for new parents would reduce post-neonatal mortality by up to 4.5%. Allowing parents to take time off to be with a seriously ill child also has measurable health benefits: the presence of a parent shortens a child’s hospital stay by 31%. And paid leave promotes income stability for families with new children, allowing new parents to maintain a source of income throughout the expensive health event of having a child, and encourages workforce attachment, ensuring that mothers are able to easily return to work after the birth of their child.

Paid medical and family leave insurance programs have been successfully administered in California (since 2004) and New Jersey (since 2009). These programs, funded entirely by a miniscule payroll tax, allow workers to care for a new child or sick family member without having to worry about losing their income for several weeks. The programs, well-received by employers, have enabled over 1 million workers in California and New Jersey to care for their loved ones. A California survey of employers reported that the program had either a positive or no noticeable effect on turnover (96%), employee productivity (89%), profitability and performance (91%), and morale (99%).

And yet, there is still a long way to go. While New Jersey and California’s programs have had great success, many other states still have yet to enact similar structures to provide aid to workers with newborns or sick loved ones, and even many residents of California and New Jersey are unaware of the existence of these insurance programs. There is, however, a path forward. In the short term, appropriating funding for the US Department of Labor State Paid Leave Fund would enable states who are currently considering creating their own programs to access start-up funding and technical assistance. In the long term, a federal expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act to include more families and offer paid leave would extend the act’s reach to more adequately address the health and economic needs of American workers.

Paid leave is not a female issue or a male issue, a Democratic issue or a Republican issue—it enjoys wide bipartisan support nationally, according to a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, with 76% of Americans supporting the issue overall. It has been successfully administered not just in California and New Jersey, but in dozens of other countries around the world. With such broad public support and clear health and economic benefits for working families, we need our policymakers to champion the expansion of paid family and medical leave. Our children and families deserve no less.