The United States is the only industrialized country not guaranteeing paid family or medical leave, with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 granting workers twelve weeks of unpaid leave for childcare or medical emergencies. According to a 2017 New York Times article, “Paid Parental Leave, Except for Most Who Need It,” Americans often stock up on sick days to substitute paid leave, which is often inadequate.
Paid leave is only offered by 14 percent of private businesses in the United States. However, research shows that paid leave would help solve many structural economic, social, and health issues in the United States. Some benefits include lower infant mortality rates, improved mental health, and increased lifespan. Unless a federal policy is enacted, systematic change is unlikely. A paid leave policy, however, would positively affect many people across the United States, including but not limited to: caretakers, expecting parents, newborns, children who recently went through the adoption process and elders who need care from their family members.
A 2021 study conducted by Kathleen Roming and Kathleen Bryant for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities suggested that offering paid leave would increase participation in the labor force, as parents are more likely to remain with their employer following the birth or adoption of their child if they have access to paid leave. The National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF) conducts health policy research, which includes paid leave. The NPWF reports that less than half of Americans qualify for the FMLA’s twelve-week unpaid policy. Factors preventing workers from receiving time off are the size of the organization and tenure.
Originally introduced to Congress in 2019, The NPWF has supported the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. Regardless of the company’s size, the passing of the FAMILY Act would allow workers up to twelve weeks of paid leave at a portion of their regular income. It would be funded through employee payroll contributions. To implement this policy, it would need to be passed by Congress and signed into law by the President.
Sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the FAMILY Act is the current foreseeable route helping establish paid family and medical leave in the United States. Economically, this act improves the playing field for businesses, especially small ones. Federal mandating of paid leave would create less turnover, and take pressure off businesses to set up and fund a paid leave program on their own. From a public health standpoint, having a paid leave program would allow for more diligent care of children or family members. The benefits of a paid leave program would create an atmosphere which uplifts families, rather than adding to the preexisting stress and difficulties associated with raising young children.
There are organizations and individuals that oppose implementing a paid leave program in the United States. One organization in opposition is the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). The NFIB states that small businesses rely on small quantities of employees to keep their organizations running, stating it would be hard for small businesses to remain flexible with their few employees taking paid leave. Popular arguments against offering paid leave often follow the notion that implementing paid leave will do more harm towards the economy than good, and that the pros do not outweigh the cons.
In my opinion, the benefits of having a paid family and medical leave policy in the United States far outweigh the negatives. The overarching benefit would value workers and offer improved health outcomes, and lead to economic security for workers. Lastly, a system of paid leave that encapsulates all parents – not just mothers – can influence a culture of more equitable and inclusive ideas of parenting.
While the FAMILY Act is a step in the right direction in terms of paid family and medical leave in the United States, the United States unsurprisingly ranks last in paid leave among all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Countries offering paid leave for new parents include Estonia at 86 weeks, Korea at 40 weeks, Austria at about 55 weeks and Spain at 20 weeks. All in all, compared to these countries, twelve weeks of paid leave is far less than the bare minimum.
The bottom line is that paid leave is necessary. It creates economic security and improves public health, among other benefits. It is long past time for the United States to start prioritizing its inhabitants so they can live the healthiest and fullest lives possible.