Almost Every Other Country Has Paid Family & Medical Leave: Why Don’t We?

Here’s a story about me: when my son was born, I was back at work four days after going into labor. I was working at a job I adored, with a lot of very tight deadlines, and that played into my decision to go back so fast. But also, I knew that if I took more time off than that, it would be financially catastrophic for my family. I was doing work on a 1099 contract for a small organization, which meant that I neither had access to paid time off, nor did I qualify for unpaid time off through FMLA. 

We were already trying to absorb the financial impact of adding another member to our family (baby startup costs are unreal), and there was some question about how long my health insurance would carry over if I took a pause from my job. So, really, for us, there was no other option. Two days after we got home from the hospital, I put my newborn in a baby wrap, took some extra-strength painkillers, eased myself into my office chair, and got back to work. 

It’s already true that many younger Americans are struggling with the high cost of living: housing prices have increased a whopping 121% since the 1960s, and more than half of 18 to 39-year-olds are paying more than 30% of their income on rent. This, coupled with historically high student loan debt, health care costs, high interest rates, wage stagnation, and rising inflation, means that most Gen Z and Millennial workers are facing an enormous amount of financial stress. 

When those same 18 to 39-year-olds decide to start families, those rising costs of living collide with yet another failure of American policy: the fact that the US is one of only six countries with no federal paid family leave, and one of only 11 countries with no paid medical leave. And employers have not stepped in to fill in the gaps: right now, 76% of Virginians have no guarantee that they won’t miss a paycheck if they get sick or take a few weeks off after the birth of a child. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) lets some workers take unpaid leave from their job, but that just guarantees they won’t be fired for taking time off: FMLA doesn’t do a single thing to help people meet their costs. On average, a typical worker loses $3,700 when they take four weeks of unpaid leave. In a world where 63% of Americans say they don’t have enough savings to cover a surprise $500 bill, many families can’t afford to take that hit. And because FMLA only applies to larger corporations, 61% of Virginians can’t even access unpaid leave.

Of course, because this is always the way, the effects of this policy failure are magnified if you’re a woman or a person of color (or both.) Even if you make it through the newborn stage in one piece, you then have a baby who, like all babies, gets sick and needs care. Caregiving responsibilities too often default to women, especially Black and Brown women; many women find themselves in the position of taking care of both young children and aging parents at once. In addition, because the gender pay gap persists, women often make less than their male counterparts, which means that when someone ends up needing to fill a caregiving role, it’s frequently the woman who quits her job because it’s less of a financial hit to the family. This has consequences for that woman’s retirement and Social Security income down the road. 

These choices are impossible. Almost half of 18 to 49-year-olds report that they will likely not have children, and those self-reports are borne out in the falling birthrate. Younger Americans are simply being priced out of having families. It’s a mess, and it’s got repercussions all up and down the spectrum, from child health outcomes to senior poverty rates. 

But you know what helps fix this? Paid family and medical leave! Simply helping people make ends meet during times of illness, upheaval, and new babies goes a long way toward solving this whole matrix of problems. It can also be done in a way that works for everyone: employers, people who need time off, and the Commonwealth as a whole. A pair of bills coming up in the House of Delegates and Senate (SB 373 and HB 737) have come up with an innovative way to make this work: they establish a pooled fund that employees can draw on when they need it. Employers and employees pay a little bit of money out of their paychecks (about $4.50/wk for an employee making $50K), and when workers need to draw on it, they will get 80% of their wages covered by the fund for up to 12 weeks. The employee can pay their bills, and their employer’s budget is freed up to hire a temp or pay extra hours to other staff to cover the missed work. It also puts Virginia on par with other states in the DMV (we’re the only state in the area without some provisions for paid leave), which makes us more competitive in the labor market and helps us make sure that the best talent doesn’t siphon off to DC where the benefits are better.  These are self-funded, common-sense bills that make sense. 

So why haven’t they–or bills like them–passed? It’s no secret that the General Assembly doesn’t look like the rest of Virginia, and the caregiving responsibilities that overwhelmingly fall on Black and Brown women are likely pretty abstract to the majority of our legislators. They need people like us–people who have had to choose between caregiving and employment, people who’ve been a paycheck or two away from homelessness, people who actually have felt these caregiving responsibilities firsthand–to show up and tell them exactly why these bills need to pass. These bills are on the table soon, so call your legislators and let them know that you want them to pass SB 373 and HB 737 so people in our community can get the support they need to thrive. 

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