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Is Federally-Guaranteed Paid Family And Medical Leave Right Over the Horizon?

FMLAThe Family and Medical Leave Act was passed over 20 years ago, making landmark changes that allow workers to take off 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical or family reasons without risking termination from their jobs.

But now, many workers, politicians, labor activists and workers compensation lawyers say it’s time to go further by requiring that workers get paid while they’re on leave. Such a change is fiercely opposed by small businesses and other groups who claim it would cause crippling expenses and a greater burden of government intrusion.

President Obama recently cited the fact that today, many families need both parents to continue working; this has led him to push for paid family leave, calling it an “economic necessity” in his State of the Union address. He proposed $2.2 billion in next year’s federal budget to support a small number of states to pilot this effort and implement paid leave programs, after that there will be an additional $35 million for states to administer planning and startup activities.

Meanwhile, Democrats have reintroduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act that would implement a nation-wide paid leave program to reimburse workers for two-thirds of their wages for up to 60 days our of the year. Yet in light of Republicans control of Congress, the chances of such measures passing are slim.

Supporters argue that a significant number of workers can’t afford to take unpaid leave, while others who work for small employers are ineligible for leave. While current laws do allow workers time off for newborn care or serious health issues of a family members, those at companies with under 50 workers do not qualify; moreover, employees must have put in at least a year on the job and logged at a minimum 1,250 hours during that time to qualify for the benefit.

And so when we look at the realities in the modern workplace, it turns out that only 13% of workers had access to paid family leave in 2013, according to the Department of Labor’s 2014 national compensation survey. Meanwhile, 59% of U.S. workers were eligible for unpaid leave under the FMLA in 2012.

Four states have now put paid family leave programs into effect, and the outcome may provide a pathway for a national paid family leave law.

Three of those states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — fund the programs exclusively through withholding employee wages. The programs are run by each states’ unemployment insurance agencies. Here in Washington state we have a paid leave program on the books, but it has yet to be implemented because lawmakers haven’t approved funding. California’s program, on the other hand, now has a solid foundation after being up and running for more than a decade. As of 2015 that program granted workers up to 6 weeks of leave each year at 55% of their weekly pay, up to a cap of $1,104 weekly.

When Allison Guevara’s children were born over the past five years, she took paid time off from her part-time job as a field representative for the American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union that represents librarians and lecturers at the University of California. Guevara, 36, explains that receiving only 55% of her pay might have been a dilemma, but she was able to negotiate with her employer to use banked vacation and sick time to compensate for the other 45% of her salary.

Altogether, Guevara took off at least 3 months with pay for each child. Her spouse, who is employed by the city of Santa Cruz, did not have this opportunity. The law generally doesn’t cover public sector employees.

California employers generally have a positive perspective on the paid family leave law, according to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor last year. Ninety percent of all employers responded that the law had either a positive impact on productivity, profit and morale, or it had no negative observable effect.

Under the Democrats’ proposal, workers and employers would divide the cost of the program evenly, and the implementation and administration would be facilitated by the Social Security administration.

That’s perceived as a problem by small business owners, says Jack Mozloom, the National Federation of Independent Business media director. A significant number of their members have under 10 employees, and if someone’s out on leave, such businesses will very likely need to hire a temporary worker or pay overtime to existing staff to do that work.

Financing a paid leave program would “represent a real expense that some of them cannot absorb,” he says. “When it’s mandated, it puts them in a hole.”

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Emery Reddy