This Saturday, August 5, marks the 24th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the landmark federal law that provides up to twelve weeks of job protected, unpaid leave to eligible workers. Since its enactment, FMLA has been used more than 200 million times by workers that need to take time off to care for an ill relative, welcome a new baby, or recover from a serious health condition.
The FMLA was a step in the right direction, but twenty-four years later, workers in Connecticut need a stronger safety net. The Department of Labor reports that just 13% of private sector employees have access to paid family leave through their employers — a number that shrinks to just 5% among workers in the lowest 25 percent of wage earners.
Women of color, who play a vital role in the economic security of their families, are among the least likely to have access to paid leave. According to a 2012 study by the Department of Labor, 1 in 4 new moms return to work within just two weeks of giving birth — an embodiment of the physical and emotional cruelty of unpaid leave.
On FMLA’s 24th anniversary, it’s time to listen to Connecticut workers and local businesses.
In May, a poll by BLS Research and Consulting revealed that 77% of small business owners across the state support paid leave legislation. When companies learn more about paid leave, including the bottom-line benefits for businesses, support for legislation climbs to 85%.
As one Connecticut small business owner stated earlier this year, “My employees are the foundation of my business. They are here day in and day out, helping me to build my dream. In the event of a family emergency, I want to return the favor and support them, but the ongoing costs and expenses of operating a small business often prevent me from doing so to the extent that my employees deserve.”
Business owners want to provide paid leave to their employees, but they need the state’s help to do so.
Paid family and medical leave benefits all types of workers: new mothers and fathers, infants, the elderly, and the sandwich generation wedged between the needs of aging relatives in addition to their own children. It’s a way to plan for the unplanned, as illnesses and health scares are impossible to predict.
Major companies such as Microsoft, Deloitte and Facebook have all recently expanded their leave policies to attract the best workers. Research has shown that paid leave increases worker productivity, retains skilled workers, and reduces turnover costs.
Connecticut is closer than ever to making paid leave a reality for workers and small business owners alike. During the 2017 legislative session, the Senate President Pro Tempore and several lawmakers championed the creation of a statewide, employee-funded system of paid family and medical leave for all workers. The session ended without passage of a bill, but the Senate’s debate of S.B. 1: An Act Concerning Earned Family and Medical Leaveillustrated loud and clear how paid leave touches all of us in personal life-and-death moments.
The Senate’s discussion, along with growing demand from workers and businesses, shows that passage of paid family and medical leave is not a matter of if, but when.
Connecticut lawmakers have a strong example to follow. In July, Washington State became the fifth state in the nation to pass paid family and medical leave. Let’s all take note: Washington’s bill passed with strong bipartisan support, and with the endorsement of some of the state’s business groups.
No one should be forced to choose between the family they love, their own health and the job they need. Twenty-four years post-FMLA, this message still rings true, although several states — California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York and Washington –made significant progress by passing paid leave.
If Connecticut wants to remain competitive with our neighbors and keep skilled workers in the state, we must be next. Our businesses, workers, and families can’t wait any longer.
By Kate Farrar, Executive Director of the CT Women’s Education and Legal Fund (CWEALF). CWEALF leads the Campaign for Paid Family Leave.