Time off that really works

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In a misguided editorial that ran on Oct. 17, "Time Off that Works," The Washington Post advanced a proposal for a means-tested version of paid family leave. The editors were right to observe that the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 covers only about 60 percent of the workforce, and that low-paid workers are most likely to lack access to its provisions. Expanding coverage so that all workers can take time off when they need to recover from a serious illness or birth of a child, or to care for a seriously ill family member, would make a huge difference in the lives of these workers.

While these events affect a small fraction of the workforce in any year, they loom large when they happen to you. Having access to time off — especially paid time off — is an urgent matter for working families. But how to pay for it?

The FAMILY Act, which Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Defense: VA chief 'deeply' regrets Disney remark; Senate fight brews over Gitmo Dems discuss dropping Wasserman Schultz Defense bill renews fight over military sexual assault MORE (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have introduced in Congress, suggests one approach. They specifically do not mandate that employers cover the salaries of their own employees when they need to take a family or medical leave. That would be like asking people to save up by themselves to replace their homes in case of fire or tornado. Instead, the Family Act proposes an insurance fund to keep costs manageable. Like unemployment insurance, which provides partial pay in case of layoff, a family and medical leave insurance program can do the same in case of disability. The premiums for such a program can be shared by employers and employees.

Very few workers can afford to take the time they need to recover without recourse to such income. Highly paid workers who enjoy generous employer-provided benefits can choose to rely on these rather than on the family and medical leave insurance program. But not many employees can afford to self-finance a leave of a few weeks to recover from a serious illness or child birth. Making paid leave a means-tested welfare program rather than an insurance program to which workers at all income levels contribute and from which they can draw partial pay would leave many middle-class families out in the cold.

Adjustments that meet The Washington Post's concerns are feasible without means-testing a family and medical leave program. In California, independent contractors and the self-employed can opt in. New Jersey's program is more generous for workers earning less than the state's average wage.

Family and medical leave insurance is the fairest way to deliver the benefits of paid leave to working families at reasonable cost to employers and employees. The benefits to the economy of keeping workers who need leave attached to the workforce and to society from meeting the most basic needs of working families will far outweigh the cost.

Appelbaum is a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and coauthor of Unfinished Business: Paid Family Leave in California and the Future of U.S. Work-Family Policy.

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