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From family leave to inclusive paid leave — the importance of the disability lens

From family leave to inclusive paid leave — the importance of the disability lens
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This February marks an important milestone for United States workers: The 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Since the law’s enactment in 1993, workers have used the FMLA over 200 million times to take job-protected, unpaid time off work to address their own serious medical condition or care for a family member.

Despite the FMLA’s important protections, certain workers, including workers with disabilities, workers of color, and women have been and continue to be disproportionately not eligible for FMLA leave. Modern work-family obligations, and the fact that the United States is the only wealthy country to not guarantee paid — let alone unpaid — leave for its workers, also suggest it is time we build upon the successes of the FMLA and establish a comprehensive, inclusive national paid family and medical leave (“paid leave”) program.

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Nearly all of us will need to take time away from a job at some point to address a family member’s or our own serious illness, or to welcome a new child into our family. Unfortunately, in the United States we have a patchwork system filled with holes when it comes to paid leave.

 

When workers can’t get paid leave, they face a cruel and unnecessary tradeoff: health and family, or work and making ends meet. For most, going without pay to care for a family member or themselves just won’t work, and can lead to severe hardship.

In part because of their less secure financial positions, paid leave is especially crucial for the over 1 in 4 households in the United States that include a person with a disability. More than 1 in 5 people with disabilities live in poverty, and just over half of households with at least one child with a disability are living at or below 200 percent of the poverty line.

The margins are slim. Just one health episode can put families into dire circumstances in the short term, and lead into a long-term cycle of financial instability that could be avoided with a comprehensive, reliable paid leave system.

Right now, the United States has no national paid family and medical leave program, making us the only industrialized country without a national plan in place. Federal law provides a majority of workers with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave under the FMLA.

This landmark law was an important step forward, but decades later, major gaps still remain. Roughly 2 in 5 workers aren’t covered by the Act, and many workers simply can’t afford to take unpaid leave.

All too often, the situation is worse still for United States workers with disabilities and their families. Our recent research found that workers with disabilities are particularly likely to be employed in part-time, low-wage, non-managerial jobs. These kinds of jobs often lack flexible schedules and in many cases don’t offer even basic benefits – much less paid family and medical leave. For example, only about 5 percent of low-wage or part-time workers have access to paid family leave.  

The national momentum to address these gaps by increasing access to paid leave is growing, with several key states leading the way. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have paid leave insurance programs in place, and New York, Washington, and the District of Columbia have passed laws to roll out programs over the next several years. Over 3 in 4 voters and 7 in 10 small businesses support a comprehensive, national paid family and medical leave program. Business know that paid leave — when provided in cost-efficient ways such as a social insurance model — does not hurt and can even help productivity while improving labor market outcomes.

A national paid leave program that is universally available, matches the realities of today’s families and work, provides progressive and adequate earnings replacement, and reflects the needs of people with disabilities would go far in helping all of us.

By promoting employment and financial security, such a program would also advance longstanding disability policy goals of empowering people with disabilities to lead independent lives and to participate fully in their communities and the economy. As the last 25 years of the FMLA have shown us, policies that enable all workers and their families to balance work and family without sacrificing one for the other benefit us all.

T.J. Sutcliffe is a senior director of income and housing policy at the The Arc. Kali Grant is a senior policy associate of economic security and opportunity initiative at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.