The Loop

Family Medical Leave Act

Filed under: Benefits

Nearly one out of every four women who gives birth in the United States returns to work just two weeks later. Imagine: It takes nine months to carry a baby to full term, and then after the physical trauma of childbirth and the disruption and logistical adjustments of bringing a newborn home – nearly a quarter of all new moms have to go back to work 10 days later.

Why? Without that biweekly paycheck, most women can't afford to take any additional time off.

In the U.S., the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), passed in 1993, guarantees a mom can take up to 12 weeks off work to care for her newborn, during which time her health insurance remains in effect and she's assured to get her old job back – or at least a job in a similar role. Unfortunately, the FMLA applies only to companies with fifty or more employees who have worked for the same employer full time for the past year, which means it doesn't apply to 40 percent of America's workforce. Furthermore, the law does not mandate any paid leave, so while some new parents can scrape together a portion of paid leave via sick days, vacation time and short-term disability, many simply cannot.

When it comes to family leave, the U.S. is woefully behind the rest of the world. We are one of only three countries (U.S.; Papua New Guinea; Suriname) that does not offer any paid maternity leave.

Low-Income Families Most Disadvantaged
Studies show that workers in the lowest quartile of wage earners are only five percent likely to have access to paid family leave. Therefore if there is a case to be made for income inequality in this country, the vicious cycle very likely starts at birth.

Sixty percent of people who do not have access to fully- paid leave have trouble making ends meet. Their choices are to either postpone paying bills, spend down their savings, or go back to work as soon as possible. Fifteen percent rely on public assistance to help make ends meet.

However, the benefits of family medical leave aren't just about money. Families who don't get the time to adjust to a new child in the home or the time to bond physically and emotionally also suffer disadvantages that can contribute to poorer health and socioeconomic status. For example, the longer a mother is on maternity leave, the longer she is likely to breastfeed, which has positive health benefits for the baby. Longer leaves also lead to higher rates of health check-ups and immunizations during the baby's first year. On average, ten weeks of paid parental leave reduces post-neonatal mortality by up to 4.5 percent. Family leave also can help the overall family unit long term. As the number of fathers taking leave continues to increase, studies show that fathers who take two or more weeks off after the birth of a child are more involved in that child's direct care nine months after birth than fathers who take no leave.

Mothers who take more time off work are less likely to experience depression and anxiety. Once they've had enough time to adapt to their new lifestyle, they tend to return to work more focused and "present" – less tired and less worry about their newborn. Furthermore, studies have revealed that access to paid family leave leads to more time in the workforce and higher potential earnings. In fact, moms who take maternity leave are more likely than those who do not to be working nine to twelve months after childbirth; 54 percent are more likely to receive a wage increase in the following year.

Currently, there are five states that have passed legislation requiring employers to provide paid maternity leave: New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, California, and Rhode Island. Over 15 years ago, California was the first state to guarantee workers paid time off (55 percent of earnings for up to six weeks) to care for a new child or ailing family member. Just recently, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill to expand the state's family-leave law. Starting in 2018, low wage earners will earn 70 percent of wages, while higher earners will receive 60 percent.

The California Paid Family Leave (PFL) program is administered by the state Employment Development Department and funded through worker contributions. The new additional benefits are expected to cost about $587 million annually by 2021, which means workers will have to pay a higher share of wages into the PFL fund.

Also this year, San Francisco became the first location in the country to require small businesses to provide fully paid leave for new parents. Starting in 2017, the new rule will apply to businesses with 35 to 49 workers; those with 20 to 34 workers must comply starting in 2018.

A study by the Center for Economic Policy Research found that 91 percent of California employers reported no negative impact on profitability or performance as a result of having to provide paid family leave. In fact, many firms experienced cost savings due to less turnover. It appears that in today's volatile job market, new moms and dads have developed a higher appreciation for job and financial security.

Silicon Valley/Tech Industry
California also is a leader in its share of companies that offer paid leave, especially in the technology industry. The trend for paid family leave has grown more rapidly among large businesses with professional salaries than smaller businesses with low wage workers. The following are a few examples:

  • Apple provides new mothers fully paid maternity leave for up to four weeks before the baby's due date, and fourteen weeks after the baby is born. Eligible non-birth parents (both mothers and fathers) can take up to six weeks off with full pay.
  • Netflix offers "unlimited" paid leave each year (up to 52 weeks) for new moms and dads.
  • Google offers eighteen weeks of leave for new mothers, including 12 weeks of paid leave for mom/dad and adoptive/surrogate parents during the child's first year.
  • Facebook offers four months of paid baby leave for all new parents.
  • Yahoo offers eight weeks of paid leave for pregnancy (for mom) and eight weeks paid leave after the baby is born (for either parent), which can be taken anytime within one year of birth, adoption, or foster-care placement.
  • Adobe offers up to 10 weeks of paid medical leave for childbirth-related disability (moms) and an additional sixteen weeks for mom and dads, taken continuously and completed within six months of the birth or placement of the child. This permits new moms a total of up to 6½ months of paid leave.

The Family Medical Leave Act includes medical leave for serious illnesses experienced by the worker or to care for a close family member with health issues. Note that a family member is defined as a mother, father, spouse or child, but does not apply to an in-law, sibling, or of other type of relative.

The Act also provides enhanced benefits for service members and their families, including 12 weeks of paid maternity leave and two weeks of paid paternity leave. In addition, a service member's spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin may qualify for up to 26 workweeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness.

The FMLA applies to all public agencies, including local, State, and Federal employers, and private sector employers with 50 or more workers. All benefits apply to same-sex married couples and those seeking leave for adoption. The rights granted by the FMLA may not be reduced by any employment benefit program negotiated through a collective bargaining agreement. However, any plan that provides greater family or medical leave rights must be upheld by an employer under such an agreement.

One of the most significant trends in family leave is the increasing need for baby boomers to take off work in order to care for aging parents. One report from the Department of Labor revealed that only 21 percent of family leave is taken for a new child, while 55 percent is taken for worker illness and 18 percent for the illness of a qualifying family member.

However, remember that these statistics reflect only those who have access to family leave program. In this country, an enormous number of workers are inadequately provided for in terms of family and medical leave policies and job security. The ones most likely to be disadvantaged are small businesses and low-wage workers.

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