The United States has no national guarantee that if someone has a new baby or needs to tend to their own or a family member’s serious injury or illness he can take any paid time off from work. The only guarantee is 12 weeks of unpaid time off through the Family and Medical Leave Act for those who qualify.
But states have been moving forward by implementing their own policies, and this year they took a big leap forward—in a matter of weeks, the number of states that guarantee paid family leave jumped by a third.
At the end of June, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont signed a bill establishing a paid family leave program in his state. Then a few days later, the Oregon legislature sent a bill to Governor Kate Brown that will do the same there, which she has said she’ll sign. These two states have followed California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, and Massachusetts, all of which have already passed paid family leave programs.
But the victories are more significant than just adding to the roster of states with paid family leave. Both Oregon and Connecticut went further than all of the other states that have come before them.
“Each state law has built in some way on the others or learned from the best practices of others,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow at New America’s Better Life Lab. Oregon and Connecticut accelerated that momentum.
Both states ensure low-wage workers will get far more pay when they take leave. In Connecticut, those who make 40 times the state’s minimum wage or less will get 95 percent of their regular pay while away from work. Oregon went even further, mandating full pay for anyone who makes 65 percent or less of the state’s average weekly wage. Before the bills passed, no state had gone beyond ensuring 90 percent of pay for the lowest-paid people.
“It’s definitely a trend we’ve been seeing in both changes made to existing programs and new programs getting passed,” noted Sarah Jane Glynn, a work/family researcher. Before Oregon and Connecticut mandated full and nearly full wages for the least-paid workers, California decided to update its law—the first in the country—so that it now guarantees the lowest earners 70 percent of pay instead of 55 percent. When New Jersey expanded its policy in February, it increased benefits so that lower-paid workers can get 85 percent of their normal wages.
“Without full wage replacement or close to full wage replacement, a low-wage worker will still face significant financial hardships when they need to take leave, because that’s a pay cut,” Shabo pointed out. That financial pinch leads to people taking leaves that are shorter than what they need to recover from childbirth or cancer treatment, or to care for a family member adequately so that she doesn’t have to go into a nursing home. A 2015 report found that one in four employed mothers went back to work within two weeks of giving birth. “Even people who have permission and even unfortunately many people who have access to some pay, if it isn’t enough they can’t rest, they can’t heal, because they have to pay their bills,” noted Ellen Bravo, co-director of Family Values @ Work.
It’s no wonder that most people can’t absorb a pay cut for 12 weeks. About 40 percent of American families would have difficulty covering an unexpected $400 expense without having to incur debt or borrow from family and friends, according to the Federal Reserve.
The reasons for needing time away from work, meanwhile—a new baby or a serious illness—also tend to coincide with a huge increase in a family’s costs. “The idea you’d see a drop in income at the same times that expenses are going up—that’s not a situation that’s going to work for most people,” Glynn said. Not to mention that many life-changing events aren’t expected, which gives families no ability to try to save up reserves even if they could.
States have already found that if people aren’t able to get decent pay on leave, they’re a lot less likely to take it all, especially if they already earn very little to begin with. In California, before lawmakers increased benefit levels, the lowest-income workers were consistently the least likely to use the state’s program; nearly a third of people who didn’t take leave when they needed it said it was because they felt the replacement pay levels were too low.
“The idea that we should expect [people] to have some massive cash reserve in case they have a car accident or someone in their family gets cancer so they have that money waiting for them if they need to take leave—that’s an absurd thing to expect people to be able to do,” Glynn said.
Oregon and Connecticut also included job protection for most, if not all, workers, meaning that if someone takes paid leave she must be able to return to her work when it’s over. While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows eligible workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off and know that they can return to their jobs, the law has a number of requirements—it only covers companies with 50 or more employees and people who have been at their jobs for at least a year, for example—that leave 44 percent of private-sector workers out. Many existing state family leave programs don’t go further than that for various types of leave. Without enhanced protections, some workers may find that there’s no guaranteed job when they finish leave.
“It’s significant particularly for low-wage workers,” Shabo pointed out. “The risk of losing one’s job may be enough to disincentivize someone from taking the leave.” A few weeks of pay while away from work can’t make up for losing that pay for good when the leave is over. “Having paid leave is great, but if you’re going to lose your job when you take it, that’s a huge problem,” Glynn said.
Increasing pay and eligibility in tandem will likely ensure that a lot more low-wage workers—who are already the least likely to get paid-leave benefits from their employers—can take the time off that they need.
Oregon and Connecticut also both go further in including an expansive definition of family when deciding who can take paid leave to care for a loved one. In Connecticut, siblings, grandchildren, grandparents, and any other person related either by blood or simply close connection will count. Oregon also includes anyone “related by blood or affinity whose close association … is the equivalent of a family relationship.”
Most states have already gone much further than the Family and Medical Leave Act, and even congressional Democrats’ legislation to create a national paid family leave program, both of which define family strictly as children, parents, and spouses. But Oregon and Connecticut keep the definition broad enough that ties other than blood relations will be counted. Beneficiaries will also be able to select chosen family to care for them.
This expansive definition of family “really reflects the friend networks and chosen family networks that particularly LGBT people and people with disabilities rely on,” Shabo said. It’s also important in immigrant communities and for people of color that tend to rely on more “extended kinship networks,” Glynn said. It could similarly take on more meaning as people tend to live further from where they grew up or where their families are and rely on more informal networks for support.
While the universe of people who will take leave to care for someone within that broader definition is likely still pretty small, for those who need it “it is life-changing,” Glynn said. “It is so deeply and profoundly meaningful for those people’s lives.”
Oregon also follows New Jersey in allowing workers to take paid leave to deal with the fallout from domestic or sexual violence, or to care for someone going through it.
“It’s exciting to see the ways these policies are becoming more and more progressive,” Glynn said. “States were the vanguard, and they are catching up and evolving as time goes by. But it’s through that evolution that we learn what works and what doesn’t. New states have the benefit of having those states go before them.”
Then there is the politics, which advocates also see as heartening. Three recent laws that passed—in Massachusetts, Washington, and Oregon—did so with bipartisan support. “That’s a tremendous advance for an issue that not that long ago was seen as a marginal issue even for Democrats, quite frankly,” Shabo said.
It also proves that advocates can push for strong legislation and still get Republican supporters. “We want bipartisan support, but we get it not by asking, ‘What’s the lowest common denominator?’ but ‘How do we make the strongest case?’” Bravo noted. As state lawmakers craft ever stronger bills, they are still garnering support from conservative lawmakers.
Even the federal conversation is now bipartisan, although the legislation favored by Republicans only covers paid leave to care for newborns and isn’t social insurance, instead allowing workers to draw down their own Social Security benefits to cover their time off. Still, it “is a huge step forward from where it was five years ago,” Shabo said. That’s when she testified at the first-ever hearing fully focused on paid family leave and, she recalled, “not a single Republican showed up.”
With increased appetite for federal action, advocates are hoping that the leaps forward at the state level trickle up to Congress. And what happens in states may put pressure on federal lawmakers. At this year’s congressional hearings on the issue, members from states that have existing programs asked questions about whether their higher standards could be adopted into federal legislation.
In the meantime, advocates expect even more states to pass their own paid family leave programs and to keep pushing the envelope. Colorado sent a paid family leave bill to a task force but may pass legislation next year. Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Vermont also all got close to passage this year and may come back to the issue again.
And as those lawmakers consider how to design their programs, it’s unlikely that they’ll move backward and make their programs less generous or less robust. “Every time somebody does something more progressive, that sets a new baseline,” Glynn said.