What the shutdown taught us about paid family leave

What those government employees endured is a sobering reality for many low-wage workers every day

Federal workers and contractors, along with their unions, stage a protest calling for an end to the government shutdown in January. With the fight fresh in the nation’s mind, it’s time to talk about paid family leave. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — The recent government shutdown opened the nation’s eyes to what it means to live paycheck to paycheck. Many federal workers and contractors had to make difficult choices between putting food on the table or paying their bills. What these government employees endured is, unfortunately, a sobering reality for many low-wage workers every day.

When you add to this mix a new baby, a seriously ill parent, or a cancer diagnosis requiring time away from work for tests and treatment, you have a recipe for disaster for low-wage workers. Taking time off without pay just isn’t an option — it means no rent, no heat, or no medications.

The United States continues to be among the handful of nations without any national paid family or medical leave law. We need the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY, which is being introduced again this week.

About 25 years ago, Congress approved and President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which allows eligible workers in large businesses to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave. But for years, we have known that this first step needed to be updated, because it doesn’t require the leave to be paid or reach all workers. This and other eligibility requirements of FMLA prevent many low-wage workers, especially workers of color, from taking advantage of the law.

In 2018, 93 percent of low-wage workers had zero access to paid family leave. For many, taking unpaid leave leads to the kind of serious financial distress highlighted during the shutdown—only there’s no back pay when it’s over. Even worse, taking unpaid medical or family care leave can lead to job loss for many low-wage workers. One in 7 workers has lost a job to recover from illness or care for a family member.

The numbers are even more startling for working mothers. Almost one in 5 has lost a job due to sickness or caring for a sick child. These problems are compounded for low-wage workers of color who traditionally earn less than white workers and have less access to paid family and medical leave. For them, income or job loss can plunge them further into economic turmoil.

Recognizing that taking unpaid leave hurts workers and takes a toll on the broader economy, states are leading the way to a solution. To date, six states and the District of Columbia have adopted their own paid family and medical leave laws, and an additional 10 are considering similar policies.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro first introduced the FAMILY Act in 2013 to address the FMLA’s limitations. It would create a federally run national insurance program funded by modest employer and employee contributions. The bill provides almost every worker with up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a new child, care for a seriously ill family member, or tend to their own serious illness.

With states providing a road map, the FAMILY Act is built on proven approaches that have helped millions of workers and their families. A national program is the only way to guarantee that low-wage workers have access to this crucial benefit and work support.

Congress should take those lessons to heart while they consider the FAMILY Act, to ensure everybody has the time and resources to heal, care, and thrive — including those working in low-wage occupations, which constitute the fast-growing jobs, but are least likely to offer paid family and medical leave.

The last several weeks have shown us what happens when 800,000 federal workers — and countless contractors and others affected by the shutdown — are forced to live without a paycheck. By passing the FAMILY Act, we can head off a more pernicious economic problem that doesn’t play out on the front pages of newspapers but affects individual families every day.

Olivia Golden is the executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), a national, nonpartisan anti-poverty nonprofit advancing policy solutions for low-income people. Wendy Chun-Hoon is co-director of Family Values @ Work, a national network of coalitions in 27 states fighting for paid sick and safe days and family and medical leave insurance. 

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