Despite widespread public support for paid family leave, very few U.S. workers have the opportunity to take paid time off after the birth or adoption of a child. The United States has no federal policy requiring employers to offer paid family leave. Just 14 percent of civilian workers have access to paid leave of any kind through their employer, and workers making more than $75,000 per year are more likely than others to have been paid while taking leave.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides protection for certain workers so they can take unpaid time off to take care of new babies or adopted children, without the threat of losing their jobs. But taking unpaid time off is not a realistic option for families who cannot afford to do so. Moreover, because of coverage restrictions based on firm size, the number of hours the employee has worked, etc., only about 60 percent of workers are actually eligible for the protections of FMLA.
President Trump is the first Republican president to endorse paid leave, opening the door to congressional compromise for the first time in decades. The president’s current proposal calls for 6 weeks of paid leave for mothers, fathers, and adoptive parents and would be funded by changes to the current unemployment insurance system, such as reductions in improper payments through more fraud protections. While the Congressional Budget Office has yet to release an estimated cost of the plan, the White House projects that the new paid leave policy would cost about $25 billion over 10 years to implement.
In the meantime, some states have recently authorized their own paid leave policies, or are in the process of doing so. California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, DC, and Washington state have paid leave plans already in place. Who can access paid leave, the portion of income paid during paid leave, and where funding for paid leave comes from all differ by state. For example, Washington, DC’s paid leave plan is funded by an increase in employer payroll taxes and has a progressive benefits scale, with low-income workers retaining up to 90 percent of their income during leave.
Paid family leave is important for families. Because paid leave is so scarce in the United States, there has been little research on paid leave here. Studies of paid leave in other countries, though, have shown decreases in infant mortality, even for babies born close to full term who would otherwise have very little risk for premature death. (The United States has one of the highest infant mortality rates relative to other industrialized countries.) Studies show that mothers who take paid leave are also more likely to breastfeed, which has both short- and long-term health benefits for babies. Mothers who take paid leave have decreased rates of depression and increased levels of relationship satisfaction with their partner, both of which benefit children as well. Women see economic benefits from paid and unpaid leave, including a higher likelihood of returning to the workforce. Paid leave is even less common for dads than it is for moms, but studies show dads who take longer leave are far more likely to be involved in caring for their children later, and that children have higher cognitive test scores when their dads spent more time caring for them and took longer paternity leave.
It’s an exciting, challenging time whenever a new baby or child enters a family. For states that have made this a priority—as we wait for federal movement—paid family leave can help ensure that growing families are off to a healthy start.