States Leading the Way on Paid Family and Medical Leave

February 29, 2024

States Leading the Way on Paid Family and Medical Leave

By: Ian Pfeiffer

From the first moments of a child’s life to the last moments in the life of a loved one, we all need time to care for our families. No one should have to worry about losing their job for putting their family first during some of the most important moments in life. This simple sentiment is shared by an overwhelming majority of Americans in poll after poll, which makes it so confounding that the United States is one of just six countries on the face of the earth that does not guarantee paid leave for workers. 

In the three decades since the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed into law, which made some workers eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave, both corporations and extremist politicians–with support from their deep-pocket donors–have stood in the way of strengthening these benefits.  

Under FMLA, only 3 in 10 workers are eligible for and can afford to take unpaid leave, deepening divides between historically marginalized communities. A report produced by the National Partnership for Women and Children illustrates the severe racial disparities in wealth and wealth building between white families and Black and Latino families due to past and present institutionalized racism, which are only exacerbated when serious medical and family challenges arise.

In 2021, federal paid family and medical leave was included in the Biden Administration’s “Build  Back Better” legislation, coming the closest to enactment in the 30 years since the passage of FMLA. State lawmakers in 10 states and the District of Columbia had enacted legislation establishing a Paid Family and Medical Leave program leading up to this once in a generation moment to pass paid leave at the federal level.  State legislators demonstrated the feasibility of the program and led to incredible momentum within Congress. Unfortunately, a small group of conservative Democrats in a closely divided Senate doomed this vital program, frustrating the millions of families that need to support a loved one in need. 

State legislators have retaken the movement to pass PFML across the country in the wake of federal inaction.  We are seeing incredible movement in Red states passing legislation to extend paid family and medical leave to state employees, including South Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana.  This is an opportunity to build towards a social insurance program, and particularly impactful as an important step towards gender and racial equity, as state employees are disproportionately women and Black workers. Not to be outdone, universal social insurance programs have been passed in Delaware, Maine, and Minnesota. SiX’s PFML Legislator cohort project is committed to help accelerate the second national push for federal PFML legislation, positioning passionate state legislators as national leaders in the fight for a more just economy.

The hard work in State Capitols across the country to discuss, debate, and advance paid leave legislation is vital to the lives of millions of Americans.  Each small step builds towards a tipping point in Washington, where eventually federal lawmakers will be forced to react to the community-driven policy-making on paid family and medical leave that has been built in the states.  

In an effort to accelerate the progress of these state-by-state fights by supporting and connecting the key legislative champions, SiX partnered with A Better Balance (ABB) and New America to organize a cross-state Paid Family Medical Leave (PFML) Legislator cohort.  

Launched in 2022 with 16 legislators from 7 states who joined together to share insights, coordinate cross-state actions, and strategize on shaping the narrative around PFML. We hold monthly meetings centered on in-state and cross-state strategies for long-term PFML advancement.  Legislators come to the table to discuss policy language, legislative strategy and any potential compromises, as well as implementation and enforcement challenges. 

Importantly, the cohort members are building relationships that allow them to share their personal lived experiences which initially brought them to champion paid leave, organically fostering cross-state peer-learning that influences how they approach their in-state political eco-systems going forward.

This curated space was impactful because the challenges the legislators face are so daunting.  They discuss how to navigate “knee-jerk” business opposition, while being encouraged by their business-owning colleagues to calculate and testify on the savings a proper PFML program would provide to actual small business owners. They also push back strongly against watered down versions of PFML designed to undercut our momentum and should be seen for what they are–an attempt to shift the debate in face of strong public opinion support and growing power. 

Particularly resonant was the PFML track at SiX’s Innovations Accelerator Conference in September 2023, which brought together legislators and partners together in one room from across 11 states (CO, GA, IL, ME, MI, MN, NV, NM, NY, PA, VT) to share lessons and insights grounded in the necessity of grassroots support behind policy and centering the leadership, experience, and stories of those most impacted by PFML. 

Since the PFML cohort was formed, initial cohort members in Minnesota and Maine have passed PMFL laws in their states, joining the now 13 states and Washington, D.C. who have done so. We expect the cohort will both help legislators continue passing these critical protections, including in states that have joined the cohort, Nevada and Georgia, and deepen the connection that leads to further areas of focus.

While the passage of the PFML bills creating these programs is a reason to celebrate, implementation and enforcement of the programs can be a multi-year odyssey.  Historically, not enough focus has been paid to how the programs are built in reality and the negative impact these delays have on those who need these important protections the most.  Legislative champions and advocates are doubling their efforts to “stay in the fight” to have the programs implemented as soon as possible.

The work that can be done in any state to extend these benefits to workers and their families is vital to this ongoing nationwide struggle. We invite you to join us in this important effort to fight back against those corporate interests that stand in our way while millions of families grapple with an impossible choice between keeping a job and caring for a loved one. 

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