News·4 min read

Paid Family Leave: Why the US Falls Behind

Paid Family Leave
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Getty Images
May 30, 2024

The US is the only industrialized country that doesn’t offer paid family leave. Paid family leave lets parents take time off to care for a new child after childbirth, adoption, or foster care placement. In the meantime, they continue to receive an income from their employer, the state, or a combination of the two. While some companies offer this benefit, only about one-quarter of US workers have access — many new parents have to choose between supporting their child and creating a strong foundation for that child.  

We polled our audience on Instagram, and nearly 50% of respondents said they had less than six weeks of paid leave. About a quarter said they were offered no primary caregiver leave at all.  

The Legislative Battle for Paid Leave

The US has seen a series of parental leave bills that never made it out of Congress (like the Family Employment Security Act of 1984). But they got lawmakers talking more about this issue and set the stage for future legislation. 

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act after President George HW Bush vetoed it...twice. The FMLA granted people 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a new child, family member, or themselves if they have a serious health condition. But it has some restrictions, like requiring employees to work for their employer for at least a year and at a company that has at least 50 employees.

In 2019, President Donald Trump signed a bill giving most federal workers 12 weeks paid parental leave. In context, the federal government is the country’s largest employer, but it still left the majority of American workers without the benefit.

Business interests also play a role. Some argue that a national paid leave program would hurt businesses, especially a one-size-fits-all plan that might be feasible for huge corporations but harder for small enterprises with a handful of employees. Conversely, one study found that Americans would prefer employers to cover the cost, not the state or fed gov.

Where Paid Leave Stands Around the Country

As the federal gov stalls on nationwide paid leave, thirteen states and Washington D.C. have taken matters into their own hands. They include…

  • California: Eligible workers can get up to eight weeks of paid family leave. The benefits can be used to care for a seriously ill family member, a new baby, foster or adopted child, or for an event related to a family member’s military deployment — and employees get 60-70% of their average weekly wage during their leave. 

  • New York: Eligible employees get benefits for the same reasons listed above. And get 67% of their weekly average pay for up to 12 weeks.

  • Washington D.C.: The US capital provides parents up to 12 weeks to bond with a new child, and eligible employees get a max of $1,118 in weekly benefits. 

Other states that currently offer, or will offer, a paid leave program: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington.

How Paid Leave Would Help Americans

Federally mandated paid family leave would offer every family more financial security and less stress. It has also been shown to contribute to overall job satisfaction. Here’s what else paid family leave can positively impact:

Business and the economy: Research shows that gov-mandated paid family leave can help both:

  • Employees who take advantage of their state’s or company’s paid parental leave policy are more likely to return to work after their leave. That means companies can spend less money training and hiring new employees. And it helps keep more women in the workforce.

  • The World Economic Forum says that countries offering better-paid paternity leave are typically more successful in narrowing career advancement and gender pay gaps.

People of color: Research shows that Hispanic workers have lower rates of paid leave access than their white counterparts. Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women, and structural racism in healthcare, including poorer access to quality care, adds to these challenges. 

Personal health: Going back to work too soon after having a kid can put more stress on moms, emotionally and physically. Paid parental leave gives moms the time off they need to recover, and research shows it can decrease their risk of depression. 

PS: Join the movement in support of paid family leave. Sign theSkimm’s petition here and find more resources here.

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