The last time a permanent national policy was passed to address the need for family and medical leave was 28 years ago. In 1993, Congress passed the Family Medical Leave Act, which provided some private sector employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the arrival of a child, time off for one’s own serious illness, and to care for a seriously ill family member. While an important advancement, even at the time it was not enough to address the needs of many workers and families. 40 percent of the workforce is exempt from the benefits, and making the leave unpaid means that it is unworkable for many families who are lucky enough to be eligible but can’t afford to take unpaid time off.
Now paid family and medical leave is a national focus for workers and policymakers alike. While the pandemic has been the force bringing this issue to light, it is certainly not a new need. Only 18 percent of private sector workers have access to paid leave through their jobs, with the benefit being almost entirely inaccessible to those who can least afford to miss pay— low-wage workers and workers of color. In fact, low-wage workers are 50 percent more likely to report having an unmet need for leave, because they have no leave options at all.
Across the country and in West Virginia, workers and people who would like to work are frequently forced to choose between their jobs and caring for themselves or a loved one. The United States is the only Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country not to have a national family leave program, and the impacts of going without one are significant to workers and families. Nationwide, one in four women go back to work within just two weeks of giving birth to a child. And one in five retirees report that they retired or were forced out of a job earlier than they had planned due to family caregiving responsibilities. These needs are likely even more pronounced in West Virginia, where we rank among the highest nationally in chronic health conditions and nearly one in four workers is age 55 or older. Our state has a 10 percentage point gap in labor force participation between men and women, which is at least somewhat attributable to the lack of family-friendly policies.
Earlier this year, President Biden unveiled the American Families Plan, which marked the first time a U.S. President has called for a national paid leave policy and would guarantee up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for workers. While the plan was merely a framework, Congress will spend the coming months deliberating on how and whether to pass legislation with the elements of the President’s proposed plan.
The benefits of paid leave are broad and undeniable. Providing paid time off for new parents contributes to healthier development for the child, improves breastfeeding rates, supports fathers’ involvement in parenting, and increases economic security and the likelihood that mothers return to work and earn more going forward. Caregiving and medical leave lets workers care for themselves and loved ones, while ensuring they can come back to work when they are ready. These programs also benefit businesses by improving retention, morale, and productivity, and help entire economies by boosting labor force participation.
Paid leave is important for all the reasons highlighted above and for a moral one — West Virginians value taking care of one another, but right now many are unable to balance doing so while also working. We can’t wait another 28 years, or even another year, for action on this urgent need. West Virginia’s U.S. Senators, Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin, must act this year to prioritize passage of a paid leave program that works for West Virginians by including leave for new parents as well as for family caregiving and one’s own illness. Without it, our economic recovery will continue to be uneven, leaving out many low-wage workers, workers of color, and women workers — those who can least afford to be excluded — and causing our whole economy to suffer as a result.
Do you have a story about how the lack of access to paid family and medical leave has impacted your family? We want to hear from you. Visit bit.ly/paidleavewvstories or contact Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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