It’s been a quarter of a century since America’s families got their first legal job protections covering time off to care for family medical needs and childbirth. But the kids born under those policies are all grown-up now, and their generation is demanding much more to deal with the caregiving needs of the millennial economy.
Since the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)—which provides workers up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave—was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993, it’s become painfully clear that today’s workforce can’t sustain family needs without more comprehensive benefits. Facing a sink-or-swim economy rife with swelling health-care costs, workers need more than time at home to bond with a newborn, cope with a medical crisis, or recover from pregnancy; they need a steady income.
Working parents are therefore now waiting for the United States to join other modern countries and offer comprehensive paid family leave. States like California already provide workers with partial wage compensation through a dedicated payroll-based tax system for family leave, and even pro-business “family values” conservatives now promote some form of national subsidized paid-leave program—with the backing of the White House’s own Ivanka Trump.
Paid family leave would help tackle some of the most complex aspects of economic precarity that affect most working families today, from unstable short-term jobs without benefits to low wages and eroding public health-care programs. Currently, just 15 percent of formally employed workers have paid leave through an employer-based program, though most workers qualify for limited unpaid family leave. But when workers take long-term leave without any income support, the financial gap doesn’t just deepen the burdens of pregnancy and newborn care; it also destabilizes long-term economic security, adding to housing debt and medical costs, as well as future family savings.
The FMLA’s federal protections have been used countless times since their enactment, but remain limited to larger, formal workplaces, excluding roughly 40 percent of the workforce. That means millions of private-sector workers have virtually no legal guarantee of paid or unpaid leave, with the law exempting smaller workplaces as well as self-employed, subcontracted, temporary, and “gig” workers. The system ignores the burdens impacting an Uber driver with a newborn at home, or the expecting photographer who can’t lug her equipment around while two weeks overdue.