Universal paid family leave has been in the headlines more and moreover the years, and it’s for a good reason. Unlike so many other policies in the U.S., paid family leave is one of the rare few with widespread, bipartisan support. A 2018 survey found that 84% of voters favored establishing paid family leave in the US, but still, here we are without one.
Here in the U.S., we have the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which offers: 12-weeks of job protection and benefits continuation every year to eligible employees for the birth, adoption, or foster placement of a child, to care for a sick parent, spouse, or child, treatment for a serious health condition (employee), and certain military-specific circumstances. This protection is excellent, but it’s completely unpaid. In contrast, when you look at maternity leave alone, Britain provides 39 weeks of paid leave, Japan offers 52 weeks of paid leave, and Sweden offers 68 weeks of paid leave, and this trend continues across most of the world’s developed countries.
Since the U.S. doesn’t provide any paid family leave, people in the workforce have to live in one of 10 states that offer some form of leave. Or work for an organization that independently provides paid leave to their employees or goes on leave without any pay. Suffice to say. Options are limited.
What Is Universal Paid Family Leave?
Every country has its way of providing Universal Paid Family Leave. These programs are paid for using taxpayer money, and the duration and payment amount vary by country. Still, generally speaking, if someone has to take time off work for the birth/adoption of a child or to care for themself or a close relative, the government steps in and provides payment while they’re out of work.
The Impacts of Current Family Leave Policies in the US
By not offering some kind of universal paid family leave program, the US has created a crisis for the working class. New parents who can’t afford to take time off work are forced to cut bonding time with their babies, negatively impacting a baby’s development, mom’s mental health, and dad’s (or partner’s) involvement.
Outside of new parenthood, a universal paid family leave program would improve public health because it would take some of the financial stress out of seeking treatment early and continuing long-term treatment rather than waiting until they’re in critical condition to visit a doctor or hospital. Additionally, without the financial stress of taking a leave of absence for medical treatment, a patient’s mental health is often improved, contributing to better outcomes. A universal paid family leave program offers a support net to parents with chronically ill children and anyone responsible for caring for a relative with an ongoing condition.
If the US were to offer a universal paid family leave program, it would increase moms’ workforce contribution by 20% during their child’s first year, most employers would find either a neutral or positive change in productivity and performance, and it would provide financial support to workers without access to a paid leave program (which is 80% of the workforce).
Prioritizing Family-Friendly Employers
Despite the overwhelming support for a universal paid family leave program in the US, the workforce continues to carry this burden themselves. On an individual level, without access to paid family leave, individual workers between ages 21 and 64 lose more than $9,500 after taking 12 weeks of unpaid leave (on average), and a job with some kind of paid leave is hard to come by. In 2020, 42% of the private-sector workforce had short-term disability benefits, but that only pays out when the employee is incapacitated. Only 20% had access to some kind of paid family leave program through their employer.
These numbers aren’t great, but they are evidence that some employers out there are genuinely family-friendly and value their employees enough to help them take care of themselves and their loved ones. While every worker should prioritize applying for jobs with family-friendly employers, this is especially true for anyone who plans to have kids, has kids, and has aging or ill family members who need regular care.
The hard part here is that, given how few employers offer some kind of paid leave benefits, jobs with family-friendly companies can be hard to come by and competition can be fierce. Don’t let that discourage you, though, because the only way to have a shot with one of these employers is by tossing your hat in the ring. Keep regularly applying to open roles, inquire about contract opportunities (which won’t offer benefits but could get your foot in the door), and strategically network to connect with people within the organization who may be able to help.
Advocating for Family Benefits Now
What about in the meantime until you can land a job with a family-friendly employer? You’re not entirely out of luck because you still have negotiation and bargaining power.
If you’re currently job hunting and interviewing, when you’re presented with an employment offer, include a request for paid family leave in your first counter-offer. In some cases, it may be more beneficial to ask for this than for an increased salary. If the employer doesn’t budge, then reframe it as more paid sick or vacation time (it’s not apples to apples, but better than nothing). Remember, employers budget to pay you for an entire year of work, so there is no reason they can’t afford to cover your salary for 12 weeks of necessary family leave.
For anyone currently employed by an organization that doesn’t already offer some kind of paid family leave, the only way to get things to change is to make your voice heard. Start small by getting in touch with your HR rep and sharing your thoughts on what you’d like to see change. Then, consider forming an employee resource group of fellow parents, parents-to-be, and or caregivers. Not only will you create a group of coworkers that support each other in general, but it also allows you to advocate for policy change as a united group (which, if it’s a good chunk of the workforce, can make a big splash). Don’t give up on advocating for yourself (and your coworkers) until there’s a change or you’re able to transition to a new job with an employer that offers these benefits.
Change Can Happen
It’s easy to get discouraged (and upset) when you look at these numbers, but keep in mind that the workforce still has some power. Keep applying for jobs with family-friendly employers and advocating for yourself at your current company in the meantime. Write to your representatives at the state and federal levels, too, because sweeping action has to come from them. If we keep advocating for ourselves now, then hopefully, our children won’t have to pick up where we left off when they are older.
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