In August each year, we celebrate National Breastfeeding Month. It’s an opportunity to recognize the importance of breastfeeding and consider the challenges still before us in ensuring all mothers can breastfeed if they choose. Paid leave is an essential tool in establishing and sustaining breastfeeding.
Twenty-five years ago, the United States passed the landmark Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the first federal law guaranteeing the right to workplace leave when a serious health need hits or a new child arrives. Millions of workers have taken advantage of the FMLA to bond with a new child, deal with a serious health need, or care for an ailing loved one, and millions more continue to rely on the FMLA today to take the leave they need without losing their jobs.
But the FMLA provides only a right to unpaid leave. This means that for many workers, especially low-income workers living paycheck to paycheck, FMLA leave is out of the question. In fact, many workers who qualify for FMLA leave don’t end up using it because they can’t afford to forego their income, particularly during a time when they need a paycheck most, like a health crisis or after welcoming a new child to their family.
The majority of American workers do not have access to paid family and medical leave. Only 13% of private sector workers receive paid family leave through their employers to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill family member; among low-income workers, the number is even lower. The situation is little better for workers’ own health. Though many workers have access to paid sick days through their employers, most have only a handful of sick days per year, not nearly enough to cover a serious illness or injury. More than 30% of private sector workers, including a disproportionate number of low-income workers, have no paid sick days at all.
Luckily, states are stepping up to fill these gaps by providing paid family and medical leave. A handful of states, along with Washington, D.C., have passed laws guaranteeing partial wage replacement for workers to recover from a serious health condition, care for a seriously ill family member, or welcome a new child. Some of these laws also cover leave to address needs arising out of a close family member’s military deployment. These laws vary in how many weeks of leave a worker can take and how much money they can receive while on leave. Some, but not all, of these laws protect a worker’s job while they are on leave. You can find out more about these and other important protections here.
Workers deserve meaningful access to family and medical leave—and that means being able to afford to take it. A growing number of states have shown that paid leave laws can work. We can and must do the same at the national level.
This is part of a series of blog posts drawing on our report, A Foundation and a Blueprint, published on the 25th anniversary of the FMLA’s passage. This series focuses on how states and cities are building on the FMLA to better protect workers.