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Paid family leave

What is it?

Paid family leave policies allow workers to continue to earn a portion of their pay while they take time away from work to attend to family well-being, such addressing a serious health condition (including pregnancy); caring for a family member with a serious health condition; or caring for a newborn, newly adopted child, or newly placed foster child. Protecting working people's jobs and pay while they manage these issues is essential to ensuring that all workers can meet their health and family needs without jeopardizing their employment and income.

The United States is the only high-income country in the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave, and was ranked last among 41 middle- and high-income countries for "family-friendly policies" in a recent study from UNICEF. Just 16 percent of private-sector employees have access to private family leave through their employers, but access to paid family leave varies by race and ethnicity: Pew Research Center reported that 13 percent of White adults reported needing family leave but being unable to take it, compared with 23 percent of Latinx and 26 percent of Black adults.

Research shows that paid leave increases the likelihood that workers will return to work after childbirth, improves employee morale, has neutral or positive effects on workplace productivity, reduces costs to employers by increasing employee retention, and improves family incomes. A poll from the National Partnership for Women and Families found that 84 percent of people in the United States support a comprehensive national paid family and medical leave policy, but as the federal government has yet to address this critical protection for workers and families, some city and state governments have taken action.

In addition to the PolicyLink resources listed on the right, see A Better Balance, National Partnership for Women and Families, and for more resources on paid sick leave.

Who implements it?

  • Elected and appointed city officials can institute paid sick leave through executive orders, ordinances, and resolutions, unless state law prohibits such actions.
  • Unions, working people, advocates, and community organizations can organize campaigns to promote paid sick leave and build critical support among residents and voters.
  • Business leaders can play important roles in advancing access to paid sick leave through corporate policies and public advocacy.

Key considerations

Strong paid family leave policies should cover all workers regardless of business size, industry, employment status, or number of hours worked, and should provide maximum wage-replacement rates to support use of the benefit by low-wage workers. Cities seeking to implement or strengthen paid sick leave protections for workers should consider the following issues.

  • Eligibility: Some policies exempt certain workers (such as those employed through temporary agencies) and businesses (such as those with fewer than 10 employees) from paid sick leave provisions.
  • Duration of leave: Many existing state-level paid family leave programs provide up to six weeks of leave per year for family care, and longer periods are allowed for self-care. The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides for 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a year for eligible workers; state FMLAs may allow for more or less leave. Matching what the state or federal law provides will make the paid leave program easier for employers to administer.
  • Determining wage-replacement rate: Benefits are generally defined as a limited percentage of an individual's income. In setting the percentage, a higher percentage will help low-income workers who will need a greater percentage of their income replaced in order to live on the benefit.
  • Covered use: Policymakers should adopt an inclusive definition of "family member" that recognizes the diversity of caregiving relationships.
  • Funding mechanisms: Paid family leave can be funded by payroll deductions from employees, employers, or both, or through general or specific tax revenues.
  • Making the business case: Securing the support of business leaders can be an important boost for coalitions advocating for paid family leave. Nearly nine in 10 businesses in California reported no increased costs because of the state's paid family leave program, and nine percent report cost savings due to reduction in turnover and employer benefit costs.
  • Enforcement provisions: City leaders should have strong mechanisms in place to ensure that workers are able to exercise their right to paid sick leave without interference, discrimination, or retaliation on the part of their employer.

Where is it working?

  • In Washington DC, the Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act of 2016 provides eight weeks of leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child, six weeks to tend to a sick family member, and two weeks for personal medical needs. The program applies to any worker employed by a private business in the District. The program is estimated to cost $250 million a year and is funded via a 0.62 percent payroll tax on about 8,000 city businesses. The fund is administered by the city rather than by the businesses themselves, saving administrative costs and helping to encourage utilization.
  • In Columbus, a new paid family leave policy will provide all 8,500 municipal employees with four weeks of parental leave and two weeks of leave to care for a sick family member, paying 70  percent of their regular pay. The city cited research showing that paid family leave improves health outcomes for women, families, and children, preserving family income while decreasing infant mortality and increasing immunization rates. Municipal policies such as that in Columbus can provide a strong platform for campaigns to expand paid family leave and other worker protections to private-sector employees, as well as for advocates aiming to move legislation at the state level, as lawmakers in Ohio have done.