Nevertheless, we are persisting: families must have guaranteed paid leave.
This week we celebrate the success of the Family and Medical Leave Act that was signed into law by Bill Clinton as one of his first official acts after becoming president. NOW activists were thrilled to see this long-sought national policy become a reality. Prior to this, President George H.W. Bush had refused to sign the legislation which required companies with 50 or more employees to allow up to 12 weeks annually of job-protected parental leave for birth or adoption of a child or for attending to family needs, such as caring for an ill relative.
Unfortunately, the new law did not require companies to provide compensation to the employee while on leave – something NOW leaders had strongly advocated. Surveys taken since then show the FMLA to be a popular option, but most admit that their families cannot forego regular pay.
We know that the costs to employees, their families and the economy are great because of the lack of paid family and medical leave: of the 200 million times that the FMLA has been used, $500 billion is lost to the economy due to women’s reduced labor force participation; that more than $300,000 in wages and retirement income is lost when an older person leaves the workforce to care for a parent; and, that four times as many workers leave their employers when paid leave is not provided.
This astounding fact remains: the United States is the only industrialized country in the world that does not require paid family leave. A handful of states like California, New Jersey and Rhode Island offer paid family leave through employee-paid payroll taxes – an approach that many countries take to assure that parents can receive at least partial pay during family leave. Financing a universal system of paid leave should be based on a broad social insurance plan of employer-employee contributions such as the U.S. has for retirement and disability. Certainly, paid leave – which Donald Trump said he supports – should not be paid for by cutting future retirement benefits, as is rumored to be in the works.
The time is way past due for the richest nation in the world to assure that families survive economically during family leave and that women – who carry major caregiving responsibilities – do not suffer financially. Paid family and medical leave is clearly a gender equality matter and NOW will persist in this effort until the U.S. decides to join the 21st century.