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The State of Paid Leave in the U.S.


After 30 years of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the U.S. remains an outlier when it comes to paid leave from work.

This month, the United States is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act. But how much progress is there to celebrate?

The FMLA, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, guarantees eligible American workers at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for certain health and family-related life events like the birth of a child.

But while the Biden administration is commemorating the passage of the landmark law, the U.S. remains behind its peers when it comes to offering paid leave from work. In 2018, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that, out of 41 OECD countries, the U.S. was the only one with no federal requirement of paid parental leave. Eligible American workers are protected from job loss in the event of family or medical leave through the FMLA, but are not entitled to any pay during their time off.

U.S. legislators are pushing a bill that would guarantee employees at least 12 weeks of paid leave per year, but divided control of Congress poses a threat to its passing.

Aside from the limited protection provided by the FMLA, the Clinton-era bill is also limited in the scope of its coverage. A 2018 Labor Department report found that 44% of workers did not qualify for FMLA protections due to some combination of working too few hours or not long enough at their company, or because their employer does not meet the company size requirements. The National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit advocacy group, estimated that over 10 million American workers in 2022 needed leave but did not take it. It found that an estimated two-thirds of those workers – or about 7 million Americans – did not take needed leave because they could not afford it.

The FMLA’s limitations disproportionately affect marginalized demographic groups. According to the National Partnership, workers in Black and Latino households were much more likely to be unable to take needed paid leave. Single parents and women were also more likely to fall into the FMLA’s coverage gap.

Despite the lack of federal paid leave requirements, the last decade has seen significant increases in access to paid family leave in the U.S. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by the nonpartisan data center USAFacts, access to paid family leave has more than doubled in the last decade, from 12% of workers having access to paid family leave in the U.S. in 2013 to 25% having access in 2022. Still, three-quarters of the American workforce is without access.

Action from state governments has been responsible for some of the increase. As of 2022, 11 states and Washington, DC had enacted legislation to mandate paid family and medical leave. Other states, such as Wisconsin and Vermont, have legislators trying to do so now.

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have been another motivator – according to USAFacts, a quarter of American employers created or adjusted paid leave plans in the spring of 2020, though some may have since reverted their policies.

Source: US News