ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: It’s time for paid family leave

<em>This editorial was originally published May 10 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. </em>

President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan contains a long list of potential investments aimed at revitalizing the country, but one proposal in particular is long overdue: paid family leave.

With no federally mandated paid leave, the U.S. finds itself an anachronism in comparison with dozens of other industrialized countries. As such, it falls further behind economic competitors in terms of the number of women participating in the labor force. The situation has gotten worse with the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed more women from the workforce to the lowest levels in more than three decades. It’s time the country acknowledged that paid family leave is needed to remain competitive.

Biden’s plan would commit $225 billion over a decade toward implementing paid family and medical leave. It would provide workers up to $4,000 a month when they take family or medical leave. A range of weekly wages would be replaced, rising to 80% of wages for the lowest-earning workers. Within 10 years, the plan would guarantee 12 weeks of paid parental, family and personal illness leave.

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act now in place, workers can qualify for 12 weeks of leave for the birth of a child, to care for a sick family member, or for other medical reasons. Although the worker’s job is protected, it is unpaid, and many simply cannot afford to forgo 12 weeks of pay.

The Biden administration estimates that nearly 1 in 4 new mothers returns to work within two weeks of giving birth and 1 in 5 retirees left the workforce earlier than planned to care for an ill family member. Although some companies have seen the benefit of offering paid leave as a way of retaining valued employees, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 95% of the lowest earners still have no access to paid family leave.

Paid family leave helps workers and employers alike. New parents have the opportunity to be at home with their child in those earliest days, and studies from the few states that do have paid family leave show that mothers, in particular, are more likely to return to the workforce following the leave of absence. Those with a sick family member can facilitate important and needed care without worrying about their financial situation. And companies benefit from higher rates of worker retention and reduced turnover costs.

The plan proposed by Biden offers a starting point to begin phasing in a national policy of required paid family leave. It’s something that is needed if the U.S. is to maintain a robust, competitive workforce.

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