Unpaid Family and Medical Leave Helps Some, But Paid Leave Could Do Far More—Without Breaking the Bank

One Pagers

U.S. workers take 27.5 million leaves per year for reasons covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  While these unpaid leaves offer an important benefit to eligible workers, current law fails to meet the needs of many others.  Recent research by IWPR and IMPAQ International details the shortcomings of existing programs for less-educated and lower-income workers in particular.  A national policy of paid family and medical leave would help fill these and other critical gaps for millions of American workers and their families.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) permits eligible workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected time off.  Slightly over half the workforce is covered by the Act.  Most FMLA leaves (60 percent) are taken as a result of the worker’s own illness; family care accounts for about 25 percent of the leaves, while maternity and new child bonding make up another 16 percent.  Research from IWPR and IMPAQ International, however, reveals important differences in how older workers and working mothers make use of FMLA leave.

Workers age 55 and older are the fastest growing group among all employed adults.  Like workers in other age groups, older women and men are most likely to take FMLA leave because of their own illness (68 percent and 77 percent, respectively).  Overall, older female workers are slightly more likely to take leave than are their male counterparts, but women are significantly more prone than men to take long leaves for caregiving responsibilities (30 percent v. 21 percent, respectively).  Older workers are more apt to use FMLA leave when they have a high school diploma or less, or have young children in the household.  Given the association among education, gender, and income, unpaid family leaves thus are more common among older workers at the lower end of the income scale.  For further details, see IWPR and IMPAQ International’s Family and Medical Leave-Taking among Older Workers.

Nearly one in three mothers is in the paid workforce today.  At least 40 percent of mothers with children under age 18 serve as the sole or primary income earner for their families.  Because mothers continue to be the primary family caregivers, the FMLA can provide an important benefit.  A recent IWPR and IMPAQ International study, however, finds that only about half of young working mothers qualify for leave under the Act.  The data suggest that young working mothers are especially likely to need such leave:  younger mothers are more than twice as likely to take leave as their older female colleagues, and are substantially more apt to use that leave to care for a new child.

Three states have instituted paid family leave programs in the years since the FMLA was enacted in 1993.  Another IWPR and IMPAQ International report highlights the value of paid family leave for first-time mothers.  An overwhelming majority (over 92 percent) of first-time mothers who used paid leave during and after their pregnancy returned to the same employer after the birth.  By contrast, more than one-third of first-time mothers who did not use paid leave quit their jobs altogether.  Of those who did go back to work after the birth, roughly one-fourth changed employers.  Offering paid maternity leave thus served as a valuable retention tool for employers.

Not only does paid family leave benefit workers and employers alike, but its costs can be quite modest.  IWPR recently evaluated the economic impact of a national paid family and medical leave policy.  This comprehensive analysis reveals that, depending on the specific policy adopted, benefits would cost between 0.45 and 0.63 percent of total wages paid nationwide.  Compared with current law, workers would increase the number of leaves they take only modestly—between 6 percent and 11.2 percent depending on the model selected. This amounts to an average increase of only 1.4 to 2.0 days per year per worker.  A national paid leave policy would be an affordable way to meet a critical need for U.S. workers, employers, and the economy as a whole.