Illinois families deserve more: The case for paid family leave
The United States is one of four countries that have no national law mandating paid time off for new mothers. The other three countries are Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. This is a fact despite an electorate that chooses its lawmakers based on ‘family values.’ However, valuing the family is about taking steps to preserve its structure, which is accomplished through the enactment of laws that protect our mothers and fathers in the workplace. American capitalism and our race to the top for success have stifled our commitment to values. Yet it is axiomatic that success is judged by how well we function as a society. Luckily, the younger generation is beginning to realize that our individual growth begins at home through parental influence and that the health of our mothers and fathers, both physical and mental, is an integral part of that growth. As such, the time has come for Illinois to embrace what should be a very basic way to preserve our family structure and grow our family values by instituting mandatory paid family leave.
Every mother can recall her baby’s first few weeks of life. Overwhelming love and pride mixed with exhaustion and anxiety. Establishing a feeding and sleeping schedule. Bonding. Learning to identify and respond to different cries and needs. Doctor visits. Physical and mental recovery, especially for difficult births. An average of 15% of women are diagnosed with postpartum depression per year, and more and more families have children born with some disability.1 Consequently, most Illinois women experience all of this while working a full-time job or, if lucky enough to get some time off, worrying about how to pay the mortgage and bills and whether she will have a job when she is ready to return to the workforce. Most of the time, women return to work before they are ready or healed, and find it difficult, if not impossible, to find affordable, high-quality daycare for children under 12 weeks of age. These are every day realities for a majority of Illinois families, yet there has been no real conversation as to how to fix it.
The policy debate began circa 1978 with the passage of The Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of pregnancy, childbirth, or pregnancy-related conditions. In 1993, The Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was enacted to guarantee up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave without pay during any 12-month period to eligible employees. However, eligibility extends to those employed by employers having 50 or more employees within a 75 mile radius of the eligible employee’s worksite. Although FMLA was a step in the right direction, it should by no means be the standard. Since its passage over 20 years ago, researchers agree that it has had a limited effect on overall maternity leave. It reaches approximately 60% of workers, and that is if the worker can afford to take unpaid leave.2 The workforce and the economic situation of Illinoisans have changed significantly since 1993 and the need for modern legislation is crucial in order to grapple with our current situation.
In 2004, California took FMLA a step further with the enactment of the California Paid Family Leave Act (PFLA). PFLA offers a parent up to six weeks of paid time off per year during a 12-month period following childbirth, adoption, or foster-care placement. This was the first such paid family leave program, funded entirely though employee payroll tax deductions. The right is guaranteed to each employee who individually pays into the State Disability Insurance Fund (SDI). The employee is provided partial pay, up to 55% of his/her weekly wages while off of work, from the fund. However, Californians do not enjoy job protection under this law. In September of 2013, the PFL program was expanded to include siblings, grandparents, grandchildren and parents-in-law.3 In New Jersey, under the Family Leave Insurance provision of the New Jersey Temporary Disability Benefits Law, benefits may be payable for up to six weeks to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child or to provide care for a seriously ill family member. The family leave program is financed 100% by worker payroll deductions and employers do not contribute to the program. Starting on January 1, 2015, each worker has contributed 0.09% of the taxable wage base. For 2015, the taxable wage base was the first $32,000 in covered wages earned during that calendar year, and the maximum yearly deduction for Family Leave Insurance was $28.80. Employees are eligible to receive up to two-thirds of their average weekly wage for a maximum of $595. There are some job protections, as an employer is required to have a job for the employee upon his/her return, but not necessarily the original position. New Jersey law also governs private plans offered by employers to cover family leave, benefits of which must be equal, or better, than benefits provided by the State Plan.4 Most recently, as of January 1, 2015, Massachusetts began offering eight-weeks of job protected leave for both men and women for the birth or adoption of a new child. However, employers decide whether the parent will be paid or unpaid during leave.5 Illinois can do better.
Research has shown that access to paid family leave is good for business because it is directly tied to employee retention and increased productivity. In addition, when employees have access to paid leave, morale improves and employees are loyal. Oftentimes, mothers will return to the same position, which decreases turnover rate. This is a significant factor for the profitability of a business. Wage replacement, not simply having time off work, increases the likelihood that women will work later into their pregnancies and return to work faster. These statistics apply in the private and the public sector, as well as in workplaces with under 50 employees.6
Advancement of women and family rights through legal reform rests solely on individual and collective activism. We simply cannot sit back and rely on past suffrage movements to address the modern workplace and the modern family. Illinois families can no longer sit on the sidelines as state after state stand up for families for meaningful, paid family leave.