for the first time in national politics, paid family leave has become an election issue. The issue has also gained some traction at the state level. four states – California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and most recently, New York – have enacted their own legislation. Large employers, particularly those in Silicon Valley, are now offering generous paid parental leave policies.
While this progress should be applauded, There is much still to be done to protect new parents in the United States, the only industrial nation in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid family leave.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), for example, leaves many workers unprotected. As an initial matter, the law only provides for unpaid leave. In addition, the law only applies to companies with 50 or more employees, so workers employed by smaller businesses are not entitled to FMLA protections.
Even states that offer paid leave programs, like California, leave significant gaps in protection. While California’s Paid Family Leave (PFL) program does offer workers six weeks of paid leave at 55% of their normal wage, the law does not provide for job protection. Employees, then, have the right to paid parental leave – but no guarantee they will have jobs to come back to when they return to work.
The lack of job protection is a serious oversight in the law. Without it, employees often fear the adverse consequences of taking leave, even if they are entitled to it under the law. In fact, a study looking at the impact of California’s PFL program found that 37 percent of respondents expressed concern that if they took the leave they would face repercussions from their employer as a result – up to and including termination. for many workers, this simply a risk they cannot afford take.
This situation is even more unfortunate when considering the very real benefits of paid leave to both employees and employers. The same study referenced above found that, after the PFL took effect, the majority of employers reported either a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on productivity (89 percent), profitability/performance (91 percent), turnover (96 percent), and employee morale (99 percent). Employees who took paid leave reported a 91 percent positive effect on their ability to care for a new child as opposed to 71 percent of those who did not take time off. Paid leave also doubled the duration of breastfeeding for all new mothers who took it.
There is, then, no downside to paid parental leave. To benefit, however, employees must not fear for their job security if they take leave to care for their newborns. This why it is crucial that we close the gap in existing paid leave programs, and make job protection a critical piece of the leave laws that elected officials are proposing both at the state and national levels.
In California, for example, Outten & Golden was a strong proponent of SB-1166, which would have provided 12-weeks of job-protected leave to new parents. Unfortunately, for reasons unrelated to the bill itself, it failed to pass. Efforts are already under way, however, to revive the initiative.
Paid parental leave is too important for employees to lose access to it for fear of losing their jobs. Adding job protection to parental leave laws is a big step in ensuring workers across the state, and hopefully across the country, can take paid parental leave.