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Why paid family leave is much more than a women’s issue 

OP/ED: It’s the 31-year anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act. But we still desperately need a federal paid policy that matches our modern workforce. 
Mother carrying baby while reading book at table
 Parents are missing out on bonding with their new child.Getty Images

The popular baby clothing brand, Kyte Baby, recently came under fierce criticism on TikTok and beyond after the company reportedly denied a new mom’s request to work remotely while she took care of her premature newborn baby in the NICU.

Yes, it was bad optics for the Kyte Baby brand — but the company is not alone when it comes to bad workplace policy. The issue goes far beyond remote work.

The vast majority of employers aren’t providing the protections working families need. Three in four Americans have no paid family leave whatsoever from their jobs. This means that every day, there are parents who are forced to go back to work just days after giving birth. It means people are losing their jobs while their infant is in the NICU. It means parents are missing out on bonding with their new child, or being able to spend time with a dying family member.

This isn’t something the market is going to solve on its own, which is why we need a federal paid family and medical leave program to fix it.

Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All.
Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All.Katherine MacGregor Smith

Thirty-one years ago this week, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which protected working people’s jobs while they were taking time away to care for themselves or loved ones. It was a milestone and a major legislative accomplishment — but FMLA was meant to be only a first step, a half measure. The leave it offers is unpaid, and nearly half of the workforce isn’t covered. Paid leave for all was meant to follow. But in spite of the policy’s wild popularity and overwhelming evidence showing how impactful it is — decades later we remain one of the only countries in the world with no form of federal paid leave.

Our current patchwork approach doesn’t meet the needs of a 21st century economy, and we are profoundly failing American families.

Lest you think paid leave is just a “social issue” that we can continue to kick down the road or an issue that only impacts mothers, take a look at what’s happened with FMLA over these 31 years. FMLA has been used more than 460 million times. And more than half of those leaves were used for workers’ own serious health conditions. Only about 20 percent was for welcoming a new child, the same percentage workers took to provide care for spouses, parents, and servicemembers. Without a federal paid leave policy in place all this time, families are losing more than $22 billion a year. Paid leave is much more than a women’s issue; it is a military families’ issue, a small business issue, a racial justice issue, a disability rights issue, a public health issue, and an economic imperative. 

This comes at a time when families in America are increasingly feeling the squeeze with a “sandwich generation” that is caring for children, aging parents and family members simultaneously -- and without many of the support that are offered in other, less wealthy countries.

Pew surveys have found that out of those who are providing financial support to an aging parent and supporting a child of any age, only 30 percent are just able to meet their basic expenses and 11 percent say they don’t have enough to meet even basic expenses. Nearly one in four of us are already “sandwiched” in this caregiving crush, and without federal intervention, the situation will only get worse as baby boomers age. Meanwhile, more women are breadwinning, more men are caregiving, and no one is exempt from the impacts of double and triple shifts and growing care responsibilities. 

If the desperate need isn’t enough to convince Congress to act, there’s another good reason for elected leaders, and for all of us, to turn our attention to this issue in 2024: recent polling found support (and intensity of support) for paid leave is at historic highs, with 85 percent of battleground voters in favor of it. Paid leave is a political winner across demographics, party lines, and walks of life, with two-thirds saying that it is a motivating factor in their vote.

Given the current highly partisan atmosphere, paid leave might be one of the only areas where lawmakers can seize the opportunity and come together to make real progress — and it won’t be the first time. One of the first things Congress did when Covid-19 hit in 2020 was to pass a temporary paid leave law, and on a bipartisan basis. 

In a time when pundits are questioning whether voters feel the impacts of a growing economy day to day, passing paid leave and investing in care would be tangible solutions to families’ biggest costs and most serious sources of stress. Paid leave is, as Sen. Gillibrand,  D.-N.Y.,  has noted, an elegant solution. It offers families — and voters — financial security, peace of mind, more dollars in their pockets and time with their loved ones, a reminder of what matters most. It’s an issue that uniquely unites us. 

Thirty-one years is enough time to wait to finish the job on paid leave. If we want to do something that will touch every working person and family in this country, that will bring us together across cultural identities and party lines, that will make our society more resilient and fair, that will offer American workers breathing room along with a vision of community and care, now’s the time to champion and finally pass paid leave. 

Dawn Huckelbridge is the director of Paid Leave for All, a growing national campaign to win inclusive paid family and medical leave for all working people.